FindLaw Criminal Law Summaries

CONFESSIONS — MIRANDA RULE

Case: Dickerson v. United States

Issues: Is 18 U.S.C. § 3501, which dispenses with the necessity of Miranda warnings if a confession is voluntarily given, constitutional?

Facts: Petitioner Dickerson was indicted for bank robbery and other related crimes in violation of Title 18 of the United States Code. He moved to suppress a statement he made to the F.B.I. on the grounds that he had not been read the Miranda warnings [that is, the warnings of his right to remain silent, that anything he said could be used against him, that he had a right to an attorney and that an attorney would be appointed if he could not afford one] before being interrogated. The District Court granted his motion to suppress, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the motion to suppress, agreeing that Dickerson had not received Miranda warnings, but holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3501 makes admissibility of such statements turn solely on whether or not they were made voluntarily, which in this case they were. It also concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision in  Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), was not a constitutional holding and therefore could be overridden by an act of Congress.

18 U.S.C. § 3501 reads in pertinent part as follows:

(a) In any criminal prosecution brought by the United States or by the District of Columbia, a confession…shall be admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given. Before such a confession is received in evidence, the trial judge shall, out of the presence of the jury, determine any issue as to voluntariness. If the trial judge determines that the confession was voluntarily made it shall be admitted in evidence and the trial judge shall permit the jury to hear relevant evidence on the issue of voluntariness and shall instruct the jury to give such weight to the confession as the jury feels it deserves under all the circumstances.

(b) The trial judge in determining the issue of voluntariness shall take into consideration all the circumstances surrounding the giving of the confession, including (1) the time elapsing between arrest and arraignment of the defendant making the confession, if it was made after arrest and before arraignment, (2) whether such defendant knew the nature of the offense with which he was charged or of which he was suspected at the time of making the confession, (3) whether or not such defendant was advised or knew that he was not required to make any statement and that any such statement could be used against him, (4) whether or not such defendant had been advised prior to questioning of his right to the assistance of counsel; and (5) whether or not such defendant was without the assistance of counsel when questioned and when giving such confession.


The presence or absence of any of the above-mentioned factors to be taken in to consideration by the judge need not be conclusive on the issue of voluntariness of the confession.

Holding: Miranda is a constitutional decision of the Court and cannot be overturned by an Act of Congress. The Court will not overturn Miranda on its own. "Miranda and its progeny . . . govern the admissibility of statements made during custodial interrogation in both state and federal courts."

Reasoning: Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court. He explained that the Court: 1) prescribes rules of procedure and evidence binding on the federal courts pursuant to the Court’s supervisory authority over the federal courts; and 2) interprets and applies the Constitution. While the first of these judicial actions can be modified or set aside by Congress, the second cannot. "This case therefore turns on whether the Miranda Court announced a constitutional rule or merely exercised its supervisory authority to regulate evidence in the absence of Congressional direction."

Rehnquist stated that in Miranda, the Court "laid down ‘concrete constitutional guidelines for law enforcement agencies and courts to follow.’" While he conceded that some of the language in the Court’s previous opinions supports the Fourth Circuit’s contention that Miranda rights are not "constitutionally required," he declared that, "Miranda is a constitutional decision." As the "first and foremost" piece of evidence of Miranda’s constitutional status, he offered the fact that "Miranda and two of its companion cases applied the rule to proceedings in state courts," an application that would have been wrong if Miranda rights were exclusively within the Court’s supervisory authority over the federal courts. He also noted that the Miranda Court had, "opined that the Constitution would not preclude legislative solutions that differed from the prescribed Miranda warnings but which were ‘at least as effective in apprising accused persons of their right of silence and in assuring a continuous opportunity to exercise it.’"

In response to the Fourth Circuit’s belief that the exceptions the Supreme Court has allowed to the Miranda rules show that they are not constitutional in nature, the Chief Justice explained that, "These decisions illustrate the principle–not that Miranda is not a constitutional rule–but that no constitutional rule is immutable."

Rehnquist also rejected the argument of amicus curae that § 3501 complies with Miranda’s requirement "that a legislative alternative to Miranda be equally as effective in preventing coerced confessions." The additional remedies available to cure police misconduct, which were not available at the time of Miranda, do not "supplement § 3501’s protections sufficiently to meet the Constitutional minimum." Miranda requires procedures that assure a subject is warned of his right to remain silent and assure that the right is honored. Section 3501 rejects such a requirement in favor of an approach that sees such warnings as only one factor in an overall voluntariness test.

The Court explained that the Miranda decision, which it reaffirmed, declared the "totality-of-the-circumstances test" to be insufficient protection of an individual’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination:

The dissent argues that it is judicial overreaching for this Court to hold §3501 unconstitutional unless we hold that the Miranda warnings are required by the Constitution, in the sense that nothing else will suffice to satisfy constitutional requirements . . . But we need not go farther than Miranda to decide this case. In Miranda, the Court noted that reliance on the traditional totality-of-the-circumstances test raised a risk of overlooking an involuntary custodial confession, 384 U.S., at 457, a risk that the Court found unacceptably great when the confession is offered in the case in chief to prove guilt. The Court therefore concluded that something more than the totality test was necessary . . . As discussed above, § 3501 reinstates the totality test as sufficient. Section 3501 therefore cannot be sustained if Miranda is to remain the law.

Finally, the Court made a point of noting that while members of the majority may not have agreed with the original Miranda decision, "the principles of stare decisis weigh heavily against overruling it now." While "stare decisis is not an inexorable demand," particularly in constitutional cases, even in cases of constitutional interpretation the court requires "special justification" for departing from precedent. The Court found no such justification here where "Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture."

Other Opinions: Justice Scalia was joined by Justice Thomas in dissent. He explained that the Supreme Court has the power to disregard a duly enacted Congressional statute like §3501 only if it is, "’in opposition to the [C]onstitution.’" However, "§3501 excludes from trial precisely what the Constitution excludes from trial, viz., compelled confessions." The Court therefore "acts in plain violation of the Constitution when it denies effect to this Act of Congress."

He argued that, "a violation of Miranda is not a violation of the Constitution," and cited previous cases in which justices from the majority had agreed on this point. Instead, he explained that:

what makes a decision "constitutional" in the only sense relevant here…is the determination that the Constitution requires the result that the decision announces and the statute ignores. By disregarding congressional action that concededly does not violate the Constitution, the Court flagrantly offends fundamental principles of separation of powers, and arrogates to itself prerogatives reserved to the representatives of the people.

He went on to explain why a violation of Miranda rules cannot be considered a sufficient justification for claiming that constitutional rights have been violated: "…any conclusion that a violation of the Miranda rules necessarily amounts to a violation of the privilege against compelled self-incrimination can claim no support in history, precedent, or common sense. . . ." Expounding on this point, he said:

There is a world of difference, which the Court recognized under the traditional voluntariness test but ignored in Miranda, between compelling a suspect to incriminate himself and preventing him from foolishly doing so of his own accord. Only the latter (which is not required by the Constitution) could explain the Court’s inclusion of a right to counsel and the requirement that it, too, be knowingly and intelligently waived. Counsel’s presence is not required to tell the suspect that he need not speak; the interrogators can do that. The only good reason for having counsel there is that he can be counted on to advise the suspect that he should not speak. . . . Nonthreatening attempts to persuade the suspect to reconsider that initial decision are not, without more, enough to render a change of heart the product of anything other than the suspect’s free will. Thus, what is most remarkable about the Miranda decision–and what made it unacceptable as a matter of straightforward constitutional interpretation in the Marbury tradition–is its palpable hostility toward the act of confession per se, rather than toward what the Constitution abhors, compelled confession. . . . The Constitution is not, unlike the Miranda majority, offended by a criminal’s commendable qualm of conscience. . . .

Justice Scalia agreed with the majority that court rules can be modified, but warned that they still must make sense. In particular, he noted that "The requirement that they [make sense] is the only thing that prevents this Court from being some sort of nine-headed Caesar, giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down to whatever outcome, case by case, suits or offends its collective fancy." According to him, "The only reasoned basis for [the post-Miranda decisions’ outcome] was that a violation of Miranda is not a violation of the Constitution." He further explained that the Court’s past decisions applying Miranda to the States, were not evidence of Miranda’s constitutional status, but rather evidence of the "ultimate illegitimacy" of those decisions.

He also agreed with the majority that "the doctrine of stare decisis demands some ‘special justification’ for a departure from longstanding precedent," but noted that "that criterion is more than met here." And insofar as the majority might be concerned about the "public’s consciousness," he stated that:

I see little harm in admitting that we made a mistake in taking away from the people the ability to decide for themselves what protections (beyond those required by the Constitution) are reasonably affordable in the criminal investigatory process. And I see much to be gained by reaffirming for the people the wonderful reality that they govern themselves. . . .

Scalia vowed to continue to apply §3501 until it is repealed.

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