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Departments : Point of Law

Four Famous Cases

The stories behind the cases you know by name.

December 02, 2011  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Miranda v. Arizona, 1966

Ernesto Miranda kidnapped a young woman off a Phoenix street one night, drove her into the desert, and raped her. Upon his subsequent arrest he was interrogated at the police station, where he confessed to this crime and another kidnap-robbery. Convicted and sentenced to a term of 20 to 30 years in prison, Miranda appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his confession should not have been admitted because his interrogators had not advised him of his right to remain silent, nor cautioned him about proceeding without an attorney.

The U.S. Supreme Court combined Miranda's case with appeals in three other cases involving the same issue. Those cases were Vignera v. New York, Westover v. U.S., and California v. Stewart. (If one of the other cases had been listed first on the docket, we might today speak of a "Vignera warning," or a "Westover warning" or a "Stewart warning.")

The Miranda court ruled 5 to 4 that confessions obtained by custodial police interrogation are "presumptively compelled." Since the Fifth Amendment forbids the evidentiary use of compelled self-incrimination, such statements may not be used to prove guilt at trial. To dispel the inherent compulsion of custodial police interrogation and rebut the presumption of inadmissibility, officers must recite the now-familiar warning, ensure that the suspect understands his or her rights, and take a statement after the suspect gives either an express or implied waiver.

The precise holding of the 110-page decision is this: "The prosecution may not use statements stemming from custodial interrogation unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against [compelled] self-incrimination."

After release from prison, Miranda was murdered by a man who was Mirandized and then invoked his "Miranda rights." Lacking a confession, the prosecutor declined to file charges. Ironically, as a result of a Miranda warning and invocation, no one has ever been prosecuted for Miranda's murder.

Terry v. Ohio, 1968

Cleveland Police detective Martin McFadden, a 39-year veteran, saw John Terry and two other men casing a downtown store for a robbery. After watching their suspicious movements for 10 to 12 minutes, he detained the men and frisked their outer clothing. Terry and one of the other men were carrying concealed handguns. Terry unsuccessfully moved to suppress his gun, and he was convicted at trial. A series of unsuccessful appeals took him to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By vote of 8 to 1, the court upheld both the detention and the weapons frisk. For the first time, the Supreme Court identified a lower level of justification for these steps than the "probable cause" standard that usually applies to arrests and searches. Both the detention and the frisk are reasonable, said the court, "where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous."

More than 40 years later, a temporary detention is still commonly called a "Terry stop," and a weapons frisk a "Terry search."

Note that each of the two distinct Fourth Amendment activities—the detention and the frisk—must be separately justified by "reasonable suspicion," which might or might not be based on the same facts, as they happened to be in Terry. It is not the law that anyone who can lawfully be stopped can automatically be frisked.

Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as special counsel to the Los Angeles County district attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Jack Betz @ 12/11/2011 7:08 AM

They have a name for what happened to MIranda. Poetic justice.

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