Rights worth defending

Miranda: Advising suspects upon arrest has strengthened, not weakened, justice system

February 20, 1999

FOR THE FIRST time in three decades, the Supreme Court is likely to consider whether federal law enforcement officers must continue reading criminal suspects their rights upon arrest.

Although criticized, the mandate should not be overturned.

It has improved law enforcement and provided clear standards to strengthen criminal court cases. Defendants have a tough time getting confessions ruled invalid after they have been advised of their rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer. Without those required warnings, courts could face more and longer hearings to determine whether confessions are admissible.

The Warren Court's ruling in Miranda vs. Arizona has stood as the law of the land since 1966, although Congress passed legislation two years later that sought to void the decision. Now, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has given new life to the federal law, ruling 2-1 that confessions made before suspects were advised of their rights may be admissible in federal trials.

The panel's ruling could be reviewed by the full appeals court before the case proceeds to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, five states are affected by the decision, including Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. Federal authorities wisely will continue reading Miranda rights.

Miranda was controversial from the start. Some believe it coddles criminals. But the criticisms ignore the mess that was pervasive in criminal trials before the ruling. Decisions about the admissibility of confessions were made on a case-by-case basis. This led to uneven justice.

Many police departments on their own had required officers to read suspects their rights, even before Miranda, to avoid squandering good confessions.

The courts should consider that reading suspects their rights is neither onerous nor unreasonable. While overturning Miranda might appear to crack down on criminals, its biggest impact could be to throw even more confusion into overburdened courts.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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