Judicial Notebook

The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to review whether issuing Miranda warnings to criminal suspects is constitutionally required--a review that could raise empirical questions of interest to research psychologists.

Before 1966, decisions regarding the admissibility of confessions were based on the due process voluntariness test: Judges examined the "totality of the circumstances" surrounding the confession to determine whether it was voluntary or coerced. Impermissible methods of police coercion might include threatening physical harm or harsher sentencing, deceiving the suspect or promising leniency.

That changed with Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to protect against the inherent coerciveness of custodial police interrogations, the police must inform suspects about their constitutional rights to avoid self-incrimination and to be appointed and consult an attorney. For self-incriminating statements to be admissible at trial, suspects must voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently waive these rights before they confess. In addition, the Miranda decision shifted the standard by which the admissibility of confession evidence is judged from a case-by-case analysis of voluntariness to the blanket exclusion of Miranda-violated confessions.

The Court based its ruling in Miranda on the assumption that all police interrogations are inherently coercive because police routinely use coercive methods, even if they do not rise to the level of deception and trickery. Indeed, researchers have established that a number of police techniques create a coercive environment such that even innocent persons may be compelled to confess to crimes they did not commit (Kassin & McNall, 1991; Wakefield & Underwager, 1998). Although Miranda was developed to correct for these coercive practices, psychologists have demonstrated that suspects may have difficulty comprehending the Miranda rights that are read to them (Grisso, 1981). If suspects do not understand Miranda warnings, how can these warnings protect suspects from the coerciveness of police interrogations?

Two years after the Miranda ruling, Congress passed Title 18 Statute 3501, which appeared to override Miranda and return to the voluntariness standard. The statute states that as long as the confession is voluntary under the due process voluntariness test, the confession is admissible even if it was obtained before the subject was given Miranda warnings. Courts have willfully ignored the statute for the past 30 years, using Miranda as the predominating rule for judging voluntariness.

A new case

The Supreme Court recently agreed to review the proper test for judging the voluntariness of a confession in U.S. v. Dickerson, Charles T., 166 F.3d 667; 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 1741. In this case, Dickerson confessed to committing an armed robbery of an Arlington, Va., bank. He later claimed that he had not been warned of his Miranda rights before his confession and moved to suppress his confession. The state argued that even if Dickerson had not been given his Miranda warnings until after his confession, the confession was still admissible under Statute 3501. The district court disagreed and suppressed the confession on the grounds that it was in technical violation of Miranda. However, the appeals court ruled that 3501 should have been used when judging the admissibility of Dickerson's confession.

The Supreme Court now faces the task of delineating the boundaries of Miranda and deciding whether Miranda or Statute 3501 dictates the admissibility of confession evidence. If the court decides that Miranda rights are constitutionally protected, then Congress does not have the power to pass a law to override it absent a constitutional amendment. But, if Miranda is simply a prophylactic safeguard that augments the buffer between the people and coercive state action, Congress may pass laws that abridge or overrule judicial decisions involving matters of procedural law.

Implications for psychologists

Miranda and Dickerson raise a number of empirical questions that may be of interest to research psychologists. Can a confession obtained after the issuing of Miranda rights be considered any more voluntary than a confession obtained before the issuing of Miranda rights? If the Court decides that the issuing of Miranda rights is unnecessary, what other methods can be developed to minimize police coercion and to ensure that suspects offer voluntary confessions? Do all suspects respond to Miranda warnings in the same manner? Might guilty suspects or first-time offenders waive their Miranda rights more often than innocent persons or repeat offenders?

In addition to the number of research questions Dickerson generates, the upcoming decision may affect psychologists' roles in the courtroom. If the Court decides that Statute 3501 dictates the admissibility of confessions, the system presumably will return to a case-by-case analysis of voluntariness. Accordingly, psychologists may be asked to testify as expert witnesses on subjects such as the coerciveness of police interrogations and forced confessions or be asked to judge the voluntariness of individual confessions.

Further Reading

"Judicial notebook" is an effort by the Courtwatch Committee of APA's Div. 9, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, to encourage involvement by psychologists in judicial decision-making.