ACLU Urges Appeals Court: Preserve Our Right to the "Right to Remain Silent"

February 25, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, February 25, 1999

RICHMOND, VA–In legal papers filed in a federal appeals court this week, the American Civil Liberties Union is asking the court to protect the symbol and substance of the Miranda warning, which requires police to warn suspects in custody of their rights prior to questioning.

The ACLU’s brief urged the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reconsider a recent 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit that suspects no longer have a right to the Miranda warning. The “you have a right to remain silent” warning has become a standard element of police procedure since the Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona.

In its February 8 decision in U.S. v. Dickerson, the judges held that a 1968 Congressional statute effectively overruled the Supreme Court’s decision requiring the Miranda warnings.

The ACLU strongly disagrees. The appeals court “should not ignore the judgment of every Attorney General serving in the last thirty years” by upholding a law that purports to overrule the Supreme Court’s constitutional decision, the ACLU said in its friend-of-the-court brief.

Although the Supreme Court invited Congress and the States to adopt methods that are “fully as effective” as Miranda in informing persons of their rights, Congress’ 1968 statute falls far below the constitutional minimum, the ACLU said. In fact, Attorney General Janet Reno and six previous administrations — Republican and Democrat alike — have declined to apply the little-known law.

The 1968 statute provides that a statement “shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given” — a test that provides little protection against police methods designed to elicit confessions.

“Miranda’s warning requirement has created guidance for the police while at the same time ensuring that suspects are informed of their constitutional rights prior to questioning and that the police honor those rights during interrogations,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Those rights should not be cast aside.”

Indeed, as the ACLU’s brief notes, the Supreme Court in its Miranda ruling described the interrogation environment as “at odds with one of our Nation’s most cherished principles — that the individual may not be compelled to incriminate himself.”

Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, where the Dickerson case originated, said that a landmark 1988 American Bar Association study, “Criminal Justice in Crisis,” concluded that prosecutors and police officials generally do not support the notion that law enforcement would be improved if the Miranda requirements were repealed or overruled.

“Tune in to a police drama on television any night of the week and you will hear the Miranda warning,” Willis said. “It is as much a part of our popular culture as it is a hallmark of our constitutional culture. The Fourth Circuit should not uphold a ruling that pre-empts the Constitution.”

The ACLU’s friend-of-the-court brief was prepared by volunteer lawyers Jonathan L. Abram, Jason C. Chipman, Lily M. Garcia, E. Desmond Hogan and Stephen M. Kuperberg of the Washington, D.C. law firm of Hogan & Hartson, working with Steven R. Shapiro of the ACLU.

The ACLU’s brief can be found at /court/usvdickerson_cert.html.

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