Interrogation of Suspects

After an arrest has been made and a search has been carried out, the police have the authority to question the individual. There is no place in the Constitution where the word interrogation is mentioned. However, it is implied in the Fifth Amendment:

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 offense 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. (Hall and Ely, 2009, p. 413)

The implication of an interrogation occurs in the section of the Fifth Amendment “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The writers of the Bill of Rights were well aware of historical precedence in England, as well as other countries, where individuals were forced to testify against themselves because they were subjected to torture in order to exact a confession from them.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona, established that the Fifth Amendment pertained to police interrogations and confessions obtained by law enforcement.

This important case involved Ernesto Miranda, who was arrested at his home in Phoenix, Arizona, for suspicion of rape, and was taken to the Phoenix Police Station. He was identified by a rape victim as her assailant. He was placed in a police interrogation room and questioned by two police officers. After two hours, the officers left the room and had a written confession signed by Miranda. A typed paragraph at the top of the confession indicated that it had been made voluntarily “with the full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I made may be used against me” (Albanese, 2013, p. 174).

Ernesto Miranda subsequently went to trial and was convicted of kidnapping and rape. He was sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. But he appealed his conviction on the grounds that he did not have legal representation during interrogation.

When this appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the court noted that Ernesto Miranda was uneducated, indigent, and “a seriously disturbed individual with pronounced sexual fantasies” (Albanese, 2013, p. 174). Since only the police were present during interrogation and since the police officers admitted that they did not inform him that he had the right to an attorney during interrogation, the court had reason to doubt whether the confession was truly voluntary.

The Supreme Court overturned Miranda’s confession, stating that his confession was inadmissible as evidence. To safeguard the rights of individuals in future cases, in the opinion throwing out Miranda’s confession, they provided a five-point warning, which is now well known as the Miranda warning. We all can recite the Miranda warning because it has been used so frequently in movies, cop shows on TV, and police procedural novels:

You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Any statements made by you can and will be used against you in a court of law.

In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision stated that

  • • The suspect must be warned prior to any questioning that he or she has the right to remain silent.
  • • Any statements made by the person can be used in a court of law.
  • • The suspect has the right to the presence of an attorney.
  • • If the person cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed prior to any questioning.
  • • Opportunity to exercise these rights must be afforded to the suspect throughout the interrogation.

After such warnings have been given, the individual may knowingly waive these rights and agree to answer questions or make a statement (Albanese, 2013).

The right to legal counsel did not originate with the Miranda decision. It had actually been established by the Supreme Court as early as 1931 in the case of Powell v. Alabama. In that case, the conviction of the so-called Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men accused of raping two white women, was overturned by the court because the men were never provided the opportunity for legal counsel. Other cases since Powell v. Alabama have further established other rights regarding legal counsel.

For example, the court ruled that indigent defendants have the right to counsel, and that there is the right to have an attorney present during interrogation (Escobedo v. Illinois, 1964). Prior to the Escobedo case, in which a suspect, Danny Escobedo, was denied an opportunity to see his attorney (who was present in the police station during questioning), the police routinely blocked suspects’ ability to be represented by counsel during interrogation. The court’s decision in Miranda added specific warnings required at police interrogations to stop this kind of police conduct.

Since the Miranda decision, the Supreme Court has decided other cases in which the definition of an interrogation has been given and the court has addressed exactly what police questioning actually is. In general, the interpretation by the courts is that any words or questions by the police that are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response by a suspect qualify as an interrogation (Siegel and Worrall, 2012).

In order to ensure that the rights of suspects have been protected, most police departments use forms to show that suspects have signed off to guarantee they were given their Miranda warnings. In addition, a majority of police departments videotape interrogations and confessions. One study found that more than 60% of large police departments in the United States now videotape interrogations and confessions (Albanese, 2013). In a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice (Gelber, 1993), it was found that about 85% of police departments believed that videotaping improves the quality of interrogations. Such procedures help to ensure that suspects are given the Miranda warning, that they have not been coerced into giving false confessions, and that questioning has been done appropriately following proper procedures.

Both the Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment have protected the rights of suspects. Furthermore, the interpretations of these amendments by the courts have done much to deter police misconduct, which helps to avoid false confessions and wrongful convictions. Although abiding by these court rules has provided special challenges to the police, when the proper procedures are followed in collecting evidence, the presentation of that evidence in court is enhanced.

 
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