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Miranda v. Arizona, decided by the Supreme Court in 1966 by a 5-4 majority, held that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment prohibition against self-incrimination applied to an individual in police custody or ‘deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.’ In order to safeguard this right, the Court ruled that prior to being questioned suspects have to be informed of their right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in court, that they have the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if they cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed prior to questioning if they so desire.

A statement obtained without compliance with these rules is inadmissible as is the fact that a defendant has chosen to exercise the right to remain silent ‘in the face of accusation.’ Although waiver of these rights is possible, the Court emphasized that ‘a heavy burden rests on the government’ to prove that such a waiver has actually taken place.

The Court based its holding on an extensive review of actual police interrogation practices. In addition to outright physical abuse and the ‘third degree,’ the police had frequently obtained confessions through a variety of ploys and subterfuges, many of which were codified in police manuals and texts. The Court found that ‘the very fact of custodial interrogation exacts a heavy toll on individual liberty and trades on the weakness of individuals.’

Hailed by civil libertarians as a victory for individual rights, the decision was attacked by conservatives as undermining the efforts of law enforcement officials. Meanwhile, a series of post-Warren Court decisions have significantly limited the applicability of Miranda while not overruling the case outright.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.