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MCBA President’s Message: The metaignorance of Miranda

Rowe_Neil-239x300Editor’s note: This piece first appeared in the 2016 Law Day special section on May 6.

The elemental determination reached by the Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona was that the process of in-custody interrogation of persons contains inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine an individual’s will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely.

This principle traces its origin to a 17th century England rule of evidence intended to guard against the inquisitorial and manifestly unjust methods of interrogating accused persons during the reign of the Stuarts. The American colonists, who had recently fled the iniquities of the ancient system, embraced that standard and incorporated it into our constitution.[1]

The Miranda Court determined that “proper safeguards” were necessary, and ruled that the accused must be adequately and effectively apprised of his rights in the manner that the public has become familiar with through law and order television series and movies. This prolonged and repeated exposure to the public of Miranda has created a presumption that there is a general understanding and appreciation of the rights afforded to individuals in custody.

Yet, for at least the last 30 years, there has been significant evidence that these rights are misunderstood by a large segment of the population.[2]

Richards Rogers, an award winning researcher and author on public policy, has studied the misconceptions surrounding Miranda rights, and found what he has termed as metaignorance, which he defines as “not knowing that one does not know.”  Rogers postulates that, at a minimum, when an individual in custody believes that he or she already knows their Miranda warnings, they are less likely to listen to what is actually being told to them.[3]

Rogers found the fundamental right to silence was often misconstrued by pretrial defendants as simply a choice or an option, and that many believed that silence could be used as incriminating evidence against them. Other defendants believed that off-the-record statements or statements with unsigned waivers are exempted from self-incrimination.   More than half of the individuals studied believed that police are not allowed to accuse them of fictitious crimes or mislead them about eyewitness identifications.

The misunderstanding of Miranda is not only the result of extensive media exposure. Other researchers have concluded that the Miranda warnings are in actuality complex.  They contain multiple-meaning words such as right, silent, present, and change. Researchers also note that complex words such as right, remain, silent, anything, against, attorney, afford, proceed, lawyer, request, understand, and questioning aredifficult for a fifth grader or below.[4]

Research across the country has shown that Miranda warnings range in reading comprehension levels from the fourth grade to the third year in college.[5] Other studies have shown that three-quarters of defendants aged 11 to 13 and two-thirds of those aged 14 and15 were impaired in their understanding and appreciation of Miranda rights.[6] Rogers suggests that it may be pointless to provide poorly educated juvenile and adult defendants lengthy warnings that require more than a high school education.[7]

Rogers has also highlighted the significant number of detainees with cognitive deficiencies – what Rogers terms “Miranda impairment”.  One subgroup of those individuals comprises those unable to understand the warning provided, and a secondary subgroup includes those who may not have the abilities needed to weigh their options. At least 6% of those studied met the criteria for psychiatric hospitalization at the time of their arrest, and nearly twice that number were on prescribed psychiatric medication at the time of their arrests.  Rogers estimates that 360,000 adults with probable “Miranda impairment” are taken into custody annually.

This 50th anniversary of Miranda v. Arizona provides an opportunity to remind the legal community of the need to renew efforts to educate both the public and the professionals of the intended purpose of the warnings, and to work to eradicate Miranda metaignorance.

Neil J. Rowe is president of the Monroe County Bar Association, adjunct instructor of management at Keuka College, and principal of NJ Rowe Consulting Services.  He can be reached at njr@rochester.rr.com.



[1] Brown v. Walker, 161 U.S. 591, 596 597, 16 S.Ct. 644, 646, 40 L.Ed. 819 (1896).

[2] Helms, J. L. (2003). Analysis of Miranda Reading Levels Across Jurisdictions: Implications for Evaluating Waiver Competency. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 3(1), 25, 35.

[3] Rogers, R. (2011). Getting it wrong about Miranda rights: False beliefs, impaired reasoning, and professional neglect. American Psychologist, 66(8), 728, 729


[4] Seaborn, B., Andrews, J. F., & Martin, G. (2010). Deaf Adults and the Comprehension of Miranda. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 10(2), 107, 111.

[5] . Greenfield, D.P., Whitt, P.H., (2005). Evaluating adult Miranda waiver competency. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 33, 471,476.

[6] Viljoen, J. L., Zapf, P. A., & Roesch, R. (2007). Adjudicative competence and comprehension of Miranda rights in adolescent defendants: A comparison of legal standards. Behavioral Sciences & the Law Behav. Sci. Law, 25(1), 1, 14.

[7] Rogers, 730.