Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Miranda Warnings—Read ‘em Their Rights

Reading the Miranda Warnings has become routine police procedure.

It still drives ‘em crazy after all these years.  On March 18, 1966 the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that required prisoners in custody be advised of their right to remain silent until they see a lawyer—the Miranda Warning. 
It was a bitterly divided 5-4 split decision in the case of Miranda vs. Arizona.  Ernesto Martinez Miranda, a career petty criminal, was arrested in 1963 by Phoenix police on a robbery charge.  While being interrogated in custody, he confessed to a rape.  He was convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence, despite the objection by his lawyer that he had never been advised of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.  
Career petty criminal Ernesto Miranda confessed under questioning by Phoenix Police to rape setting in motion the court case that immortalized his name.  In his new trial Miranda was convicted on ample evidence even without the confession and served a long stretch in the Arizona State Prison.  After release in 1972 he had minor scrapes with the law and returned to prison for a year for violating his parole with possession of a gun.  He was stabbed to death in a bar fight in 1976 and not much mourned.

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the conviction on the grounds that Miranda never specifically requested an attorney to advise him of his rights and that the government had no duty to do so.  Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former prosecutor, wrote the opinion that not only overturned Miranda’s conviction, but outlined dramatic new procedures for police interrogations and made it clear that confessions obtained without following proper procedures would be “tainted fruit of a forbidden tree” and could not be used in evidence.
Dissenting justices worried that all suspects would immediately clam up and that all lawyers would advise their clients to keep quiet.  
Despite being a Republican and a former prosecutor, Chief Justice Earl Warren personally wrote the sweeping decision establishing the Miranda rights--just one of the many reason he became a top Right Wing bugaboo.

It turns out, however, that a lot of criminals just can’t stop themselves from babbling to police and a lot of lawyers advise their clients to confess in exchange for a plea bargain. 
After the decision, cops were issued little cards with the required verbiage to cut the court’s mustard.  They would pull it out and read:
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to be speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.
Although police were originally outraged, the ritual of “reading ‘em their rights” soon became second nature.  These days few cops need those little cards.  They can easily rattle of the language just as they are reaching for the cuffs.
Cases do occasionally get thrown out when the procedures are not properly followed, but probably no more frequently than for other police misconduct like inappropriate searches. 

The case of the wounded Boston Bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a litmus test of American attitudes about the Miranda warnings in terrorism cases.  Turns out most American didn't give a shit about Constitutional guarantees and a lot would have paid to witness the guy's public torture....Donald Trump took note.
Still, complaints that the courts are soft on crime have been a staple of the right wing ever since.  Controversies over whether to try terrorism suspects in civilian courts during the post 9/11 War on Terror often centered on claims that “Mirandizing” them would somehow endanger the national security by interfering with intelligence gathering.  Of course, the same objectors were also enthusiasts for the Spanish Inquisition style of integration. 

Although seemingly well established by decades of routine use and supported and even expanded by repeated court rulings there are disturbing signs that the Miranda warnings may face attack and even successful roll back.  On the campaign stump Trump made attacks on liberal judges a red meat staple only a hair below the diatribes against the media and protestors.  The crowds went wild every time.
As President the Cheeto in Charge has consistently shown that he will actively pursue the most radical parts of his campaign agenda if it does not involve disturbing his personal business interests or that of the ultra-wealthy oligarchy that supports him.  He has ramped up across the board attacks on the integrity of the courts and displayed open contempt for Constitutional niceties.  While spreading hair-on-fire panic about Islamic terrorism, immigrant crime sprees, and violence in Chicago he promises to un-handcuff the police and return to the days when they “knew how to handle” protestors and crime.  He has dismissed all of the Obama Federal Prosecutors and under that old segregationist and bigot Jeff Sessions suspended all review of police behavior triggered by police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere.  He promises to appoint only get-tough-on-crime hardliners to the Federal Bench and with a compliant Republican majority in the Senate there is almost nothing to stop him from succeeding in rolling back well established law and all manner of civil rights and liberties. 
The unthinkable may be at hand.

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