On December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified and became part of the US Constitution. The Fifth Amendment reads:
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
On July 9, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. Section 1 states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” [Emphasis mine]
From the late 1800s into the early 1900s, organized crime and gangsters had come into their own. They ruled the streets in many cities, especially New York City and Chicago. Police were forced to get tough and ended up not always living up to the standards of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. They often resorted to what was called the ‘third degree’ to coerce suspects into confessing to a crime. The growing incidence of police brutality became a concern to many.
In May 1929, President Herbert Hoover established a Law Observance and Enforcement Commission to study the execution of the 18th Amendment also known as Prohibition. George Wickersham, the Attorney General under President Taft, was tasked with heading up the commission.
In 1931, the commission issued its report which is known as the Wickersham Report. The bulk of the report spoke about the difficulties of trying to enforce Prohibition and that each state enforced it differently. A small portion of the report also dealt with the issue of some of the questionable tactics used by law enforcement in their enforcement of Prohibition.
In 1932, the US Supreme Court heard and ruled on the case of Powell v. State of Alabama. In that case, a black man was charged with raping two white girls. After he was convicted, his defense filed appeals based upon the question of whether or not he was given due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. It centered around the question of whether or not he had adequate access to legal counsel. In their ruling, the high court stated:
“In the light of the facts outlined in the forepart of this opinion- the ignorance and illiteracy of the defendants, their youth, the circumstances of public hostility, the imprisonment and the close surveillance of the defendants by the military forces, the fact that their friends and families were all in other states and communication with them necessarily difficult, and above all that they stood in deadly peril of their lives-we think the failure of the trial court to give them reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel was a clear denial of due process.”
“But passing that, and assuming their inability, even if opportunity had been given, to employ counsel, as the trial court evidently did assume, we are of opinion that, under the circumstances just stated, the necessity of counsel was so vital and imperative that the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was likewise a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
In 1936, the Supreme Court heard and ruled on the case of Brown v. Mississippi in which two people were convicted of murder solely on their confessions. The two individuals first pleaded not guilty, but eventually signed confessions after hours of third degree interrogation. The high court ruled that confessions obtained by physical torture violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1938, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Johnson v. Zerbst. John Johnson appealed his conviction on the grounds that his Fourteenth Amendment right of due process because he could not afford legal counsel and none was provided by the courts. The high court ruled that all defendants in federal criminal trials who cannot afford legal counsel must be appointed legal counsel by the court.
In 1942 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Betts v. Brady. Betts was charged with robbery in Maryland. He claimed to be indigent and unable to afford counsel so he requested that the court appoint counsel for him. The Maryland court told Betts that they only appoint counsel for indigents in murder and rape cases. The high court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause dose not state that indigent defendants in state courts are guaranteed court appointed and compensated counsel.
These cases and others over the years focused on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of a person or persons, charged with the commission of a crime. Do they have rights at the time of arrest? Do they have the right to a court appointed and compensated attorney? That would all be decided in one case that went to the US Supreme Court in the 1960s.
On March 2, 1963, an 18-year-old woman told the Phoenix, Arizona police that she had been kidnapped, driven out into the desert and raped. She provided a description and partial license plate number. Upon questioning, some detectives were not sure of how true the woman’s story was so they gave her a lie detector test of which the results were inclusive.
Following up on the license plate number, the police found Ernesto Miranda who had a record of being a peeping tom. When placed in a lineup, the alleged victim did not identify Miranda as her attacker. Miranda was interrogated and eventually signed a brief confession.
When the case went to court, he was convicted of kidnapping and rape and sentenced to prison. His court appointed attorney did nothing to help his client. He never called any witnesses.
While in prison, Miranda began filing appeals and eventually the ACLU got involved and offered to defend him. The appeal filed by the ACLU focused on the issue of whether or not Miranda understood his legal rights at the time of his arrest and interrogation. His appeal made it to the US Supreme Court.
On this day, June 13, 1966, the US Supreme Court overturned Miranda’s conviction on the grounds that he was not properly advised of his legal rights. The Supreme Court clarified any confusion from past court rulings about what rights are of anyone being arrested. They didn’t have to speak to police or undergo interrogation without an attorney being present and if they couldn’t afford an attorney a court appointed and compensated attorney would be provided.
As a result, law enforcement agencies and officers nationwide were instructed to read every person being arrested for any crime be read his rights, which quickly became known as the Miranda Rights. We’re all familiar with them, but in case you’re not, the Miranda Rights state:
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 an attorney.
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
In October, 1966, Miranda was retried for the abduction and rape of the 18-year-old woman and was again found guilty and sent to prison. He was released from prison in 1972, but his freedom didn’t last long. In January 1976, Miranda was stabbed to death in a bar’s men’s room following a poker game.
Ernesto Miranda was a criminal whose life would normally be unknown and forgotten to most if it hadn’t been for the involvement of ACLU. Now, everyone knows the name, but probably not the man.
Sources for the above includes: The Bill of Rights; Amendments 11-27 to the US Constitution; Wickersham Report; Powell v. State of Alabama; Brown v. Mississippi; Johnson v. Zerbst – Significance, Supreme Court Requires That Counsel Be Appointed, Federal Court Of Appeals; Betts v. Brady; History of Miranda Warning; Facts and Case Summary – Miranda v. Arizona; Miranda v. Arizona; The Miranda Rights are Established; The Miranda Warning; “Miranda” Rights and the Fifth Amendment; Miranda v. Arizona.