10 Chap. L. Rev. 761 (No PDF)
Chapman Law Review
MIRANDA AND THE MEDIA: TRACING THE CULTURAL EVOLUTION OF A CONSTITUTIONAL REVOLUTION
Copyright (c) 2007 Chapman Law Review; Russell Dean Covey
Law’s interplay with popular culture is fascinatingly multifaceted, and nowhere has the complexity of the relationship played out more fully than with the media’s treatment of Miranda v. Arizona. Not only did television make the Miranda warnings famous, its adoption of Miranda as an icon of criminal procedure may be the main reason Miranda is good law today. At least, one can extract that claim from the Court’s decision in Dickerson v. United States.
The Dickerson Court declined the opportunity to overrule Miranda and return interrogation law to its pre-Miranda status, it said, largely because “Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture.” Pop culture thus saved Miranda. But why? What, if any, link is there between the procedures that constitute “routine police practice” and the fact that Miranda has become a part of the national culture?
To the extent that there is a link at all, I suspect it is quite attenuated. Delivery of Miranda warnings to a suspect prior to custodial interrogation is only one of many routine police practices, most of which–say, the search-incident-to-arrest rules–never became national icons. And what does embeddedness in pop culture have to do with the constitutionality of a warning requirement? On the surface at least, not much. In my view, the Dickerson Court’s claim is best read as stating not one but two distinct justifications for upholding Miranda. One claim is that Miranda should be preserved because the Miranda warnings have become a useful part of routine police practice. A second is that the Miranda warnings should not be dispensed with because of the collateral damage that would result from uprooting such an embedded cultural icon.
This article comments on the second of those two claims. It explores the depiction of interrogation in film and television from the 1940s to the present, and contrasts that imagery with the Supreme Court’s interrogation jurisprudence over the same time frame. Although my treatment of the subject is necessarily only fragmentary (a comprehensive review of either topic would fill many volumes), this article hazards a few tentative hypotheses.
First, a review of the treatment of interrogation in both domains during this period strongly suggests that law and popular culture are not autonomous regions of thought or distinct and isolated disciplines, but rather that law and culture are in deep dialogue. On the one hand, as Professors Sarat and Kearns have noted, law is “constitutive of culture” in the sense that its “concepts and commands” have a way of penetrating the cultural consciousness almost imperceptibly. At the same time, “[l]egal meanings are not invented and communicated in a unidirectional process.” Law’s “internal definitions of some of its terms of art” cannot be reliably understood without reference to popular meanings and ordinary language. Both popular culture and law draw from, and add to, a common set of iconographic images that represent and describe the world, thereby creating something of a collage of interrogation imagery that might be studied through a “semiotics” of law and order–that is, an attempt to construct meaning by analyzing the contexts and mutual relationships in which the concepts of law and order are embedded. Because of this dialogic relationship, not only can the history of law be illuminated by reference to pop culture (and vice versa), but the constraints and demands of form and convention that each genre imposes in its own respective sphere necessarily influence and transform its counterpart.
Second, the history of Miranda’s iconization, duly noted by the Court in Dickerson, aptly illustrates this semiotics. I thus attempt to show that the changing depiction of Miranda on film and television intersects revealingly with the successive Warren, Burger, and Rehnquist Courts’ treatment of interrogation law generally, and Miranda law in particular.
The origins of the story, however, predate Miranda. The “interrogation moment” has always been a central component of the popular image of law and order, from the single-minded effort of Porfiry Petrovich to secure Raskolnikov’s confession in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, to the weekly episodes of NYPD Blue in which Detectives Bobby Simone and Andy Sipowicz play good cop/bad cop, using a variety of lawful and unlawful tactics in the “interview room” to induce suspects to confess guilt. Miranda’s story must be understood as a continuation of an older plotline concerning popular culture’s use of confession as a narrative device and its exploitation of police interrogation as the vehicle that brings about these confessions. Confession’s narrative convenience collides awkwardly with Miranda’s function as a legal solution to a problem dogging the Court at least since Brown v. Mississippi : how to sort out the respective roles of police, trial courts, and appellate courts in setting the parameters of interrogation, in a way that ensures that confessions satisfy whatever qualitative criteria are necessary–be it reliability, voluntariness, or absence of torture or overt coercion–without overstepping their competency and jurisdictional bounds and without undermining effective law enforcement. Both law and pop culture have struggled to reconcile these competing demands.
Pop culture’s confessional needs are not dissimilar to law’s, but neither are they identical. Like all effective dramatic narratives, crime dramas must tell their stories within the short time their formats permit. Parsimony therefore is extremely important. At the same time, effective dramatic narrative requires enough of a sense of verisimilitude to permit the viewer to suspend disbelief for the duration of the drama. The device of the confession serves the needs of parsimony well; it is the primary vehicle for narrative closure. (As will be discussed later, it is with respect to verisimilitude that confession as a plot device creates problems.) Few and far between are the crime and cop shows that do not end with the criminal’s confession. The indispensability of the confession is evidenced by the fact that even in a contemporary crime show like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which depicts the crime-solving activities of forensic crime investigators whose job is to analyze and piece together physical evidence left at crime scenes, virtually every episode concludes with an interrogation (a highly unrealistic bit of role confusion) and confession from the “real” criminal.
The screenwriter’s dramatic reliance on confessions, regardless of story structure, is intuitively understandable. Where the narrative is presented from the viewpoint of the investigating detective, police officer, or crusading citizen who must solve a crime, the criminal’s confession provides the possibility of a definitive resolution of the mystery; it permits revelation of what “really happened.” At the same time, where the narrative is presented from the criminal’s perspective, the confession permits the character development so essential to effective narrative; the criminal confesses to demonstrate his acknowledgement of transgression, to make vengeance for wrongdoing possible, to create the preconditions for remorse, or to lay the foundation for just retribution. Dramatic convention requires that a villain give some verbal or at least inferable acknowledgement of culpability before the hero is permitted to plug him with lead. Avenging heroes do not kill transgressors unaware. Not only would an unwarned killing be unmanly, it would defeat the very idea of retribution for which the avenging hero stands, because retributive punishment loses its meaning unless its subject is aware of the reasons for his punishment.
Confession is equally important where the suspect in a dramatic narrative is innocent. Indeed, confession is perhaps even more important in this context, because a suspected character’s innocence cannot be dispositively confirmed absent an exonerating explanation. As Peter Brooks writes, “[E]xculpation depends on articulation.” Resolution cannot occur unless the protagonist confesses the truth or the guilty party confesses to absolve the innocent. Thus, regardless of whether the story’s protagonist is criminal or cop, guilty or innocent, narrative rules require a response to accusation in order to confirm guilt or to deny it, to justify retribution or defeat it.
Pop culture could hardly live without confession. Nor, as it turns out, can law. Some of the most interesting contemporary jury research suggests that juries evaluate evidence through a narrative lens. That is, in reaching verdicts, “jurors impose a narrative story organization on trial information.” As such, the cognitive strategies jurors rely upon in the courtroom are similar, if not identical, to those at work in the living room or theater. Confessions likely perform a narrative function in the courtroom similar to that in fiction–they parsimoniously and definitively resolve doubts regarding the veracity of the prosecutor’s story. The legal system’s overwhelming reliance on guilty pleas to resolve criminal charges, moreover, further elevates the importance of confession, since confession serves as a substitute for objective evidence of guilt. Appellate courts have come to rely on confessions (in the form of guilty pleas) in order to minimize post-conviction process. From the point of view of the legal system, confession (in the interrogation room or the courtroom) provides the closure necessary to the system’s function and legitimacy. It thus comes as no surprise that the Court has announced that law cannot do without confession, proclaiming that “[a]dmissions of guilt are more than merely ‘desirable,’ they are essential to society’s compelling interest in finding, convicting, and punishing those who violate the law.”
But that still leaves the problem of how, consistent with the demands of verisimilitude and constitutional law, the confession is to be induced. After all, few confessions in reality are freely offered. Bound up with the drama of confession, then, is the distinctive role performed by the confessor’s handmaiden: the interrogator, who in drama as in real life may wear many hats, including psychoanalyst, priest, lover, or policeman, or who may not be a person at all, but rather a diary or dictaphone.
As we will see, Miranda’s story reflects an evolving understanding of the relationship between police interrogator and suspect told by successive generations of jurists. But the Supreme Court was far from the only arbiter of the interrogation room. Even as the Supreme Court in its role as constitutional overseer of police evidence-gathering methods focused on the delicate legal intracacies of interrogation–weighing and balancing the respective importance of such values as individual autonomy and the right to be free of coercion against the state’s interest in solving crimes and securing convictions–purveyors of popular culture were busily instantiating and appropriating interrogation and confession for their own distinct purposes. Their product–the crime films and police shows that have served as a mainstay of pop culture since Hollywood’s birth–simultaneously borrows from authoritative sources of law (such as Supreme Court opinions), mirrors popular assumptions about what law is, and shapes public attitudes toward what law should be. Pop culture’s depiction of interrogation reflects and provides a record of evolving legal norms and changing public expectations not only about law and the legal process, but about the nature of the human condition. The next part of this article attempts to illustrate this dynamic by juxtaposing images of interrogation in film and in Supreme Court decisions during the era of film noir.
I. Interrogation in the Pre- Miranda Era
The contest between interrogator and suspect featured centrally in the film noir crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, many films noir used the interrogation/confession device as their basic narrative framework. In this part, I consider two brief fragments from a pair of the classic films noir, both released in 1944. The first fragment is a bit of dialogue from Double Indemnity, a film which follows the ill-fated scheme of insurance salesman Walter Neff and housewife Phyllis Dietrichson to murder Dietrichson’s husband, which is told in the form of Neff’s dying confession. Shortly after Neff (Fred MacMurray) has commenced an affair with Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Dietrichson divulges thoughts of murdering her rich and inattentive husband. Neff, with a dawning realization that her interest in him is related to her desire to take out and collect on a secret insurance policy on her husband’s life, warns that such a plot would be quickly detected by his company’s claims investigator. Says Neff, “[A] set-up like that would be just like a slice of rare roast beef. In three minutes he’d know it wasn’t an accident. In ten minutes you’d be sitting under the hot lights. In half an hour you’d be signing your name to a confession.”
The second fragment to consider is a climactic scene occurring near the end of another 1944 film, Laura. Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been arrested for the murder of Diane Redfern, and Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) has brought Laura to the police station for questioning. As soon as McPherson sits down, he flips on two bright interrogation lights directed in Laura’s face:
“All right, let’s have it.”
“What are you trying to do, force a confession out of me?”
“You’ve been holding out and I want to know why. It’ll be easier for you if you tell the truth.”
“What difference does it make what I say. You’ve made up your mind, I’m guilty.”
“Don’t tell me you have any doubts, since you. . . [dropping her head and shielding her eyes] Oh, I can’t, please, do I have to have those lights in my face?”
[McPherson turns off the lights.]
What do these two filmic fragments tell us about the popular conception of interrogation? Most obviously, their adoption of the “hot lights” in the interrogation room as a metaphor for police questioning suggests a prevalent assumption that moderate pressure in the interrogation room was standard, the norm rather than the exception. In Laura, McPherson turns on the lights without hesitation or pause. In Double Indemnity, when Neff wishes to dissuade Phyllis from killing, he invokes the lights as a metaphor for police questioning. The lights are synonymous with interrogation itself.
In addition to reflecting a basic popular comfort with police pressure tactics in the interrogation room, several additional messages can be gleaned from the interrogation imagery in these pre-Miranda films. First, Neff’s warning to Phyllis suggests a popular presupposition that when criminal suspicions point to a particular suspect, the suspect will be called to answer questions. Second, both fragments underscore the belief, or at least the pretense, that police pressure will induce revelation of the truth. These messages are of course fully consistent with the “dogmatic” moral lesson of the films of the period: crime (although titillating) doesn’t pay. Criminality inevitably leads to confession, which in turn leads to retribution, either in the form of punishment or, more typically, death–the fate that befalls Dietrichson and Neff in Double Indemnity, and Waldo Lydecker, the real killer in Laura. (Death, for narrative effect, is much neater than legal process.)
If the “hot lights” metaphor demonstrates the popular expectation that suspects will be questioned and that police will apply pressure to get suspects to talk, the juxtaposition of strong pressure tactics and delicate (or apparently delicate) suspects such as Laura Hunt and Phyllis Dietrichson suggests a further expectation that police interrogational pressure will be moderated in proportion to the strength of the suspect’s capacity to withstand it. After all, very little pressure is necessary to overcome Laura’s capacity–when she shows weakness, McPherson turns off the lights, and Laura talks.
As the words “film noir” suggest, the prevalence of darkness to “convey a bleak or cynical mood” is an essential feature of the genre, and the play of light and dark not only serves an important aesthetic function but also works as an important narrative device. In a literary sense, the “hot lights” symbolize the glare of inquisition, a glare that unearths the “subterranean life of guilty secrets.” Questioning under the hot lights represents the literal and figurative process by which guilty secrets and wicked motives are dredged from the recesses of the criminal mind and exposed to the light of moral judgment and, ultimately, legal retribution. The harsh glare of the interrogation lights starkly contrasts with the shadowy underworlds in which the characters live. An emerging fascination with Freud also was manifested in the interrogation moment, which did double duty as a metaphor for the struggle between the unconscious (which seeks to remain hidden) and the psychoanalytic impulse to expose it to light.
If police interrogation was portrayed as a useful, and perhaps essential, instrumentality of truth, interrogation was a soldier in the larger mission to expose the flawed humanity of the interrogated. The classic film noir criminals–Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, or even Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura–were not cardboard cutouts but complex, flawed human beings. Part of film noir’s fascination stems from its willingness to trade in shades of gray, to explore the murky complexities of human motive that move men and women to do evil. Criminality in film noir was variously portrayed as a vice or a weakness, stemming in some cases from the all-too-human desire for love, money, or drink, and in others, to moral or mental sickness, but almost always as the product of some recognizable human frailty. Film noir thus acknowledged the thin line separating ordinary men and women from criminals.
How does law’s depiction of interrogation compare? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Supreme Court’s narrative tactics in its pre-Miranda involuntary confessions cases bear a striking resemblance to the interrogation-room dynamic depicted in film noir. Walter Neff’s description of interrogation in Double Indemnity, for instance, echoes the interrogation of Major Raymond Lisenba described by the Court in Lisenba v. California, a case involving a defendant who–in classic film noir fashion–murdered his wife in order to collect life insurance on a “double indemnity” clause of the policy. Rejecting Lisenba’s claim that his confession was involuntary, the Court explained that although Lisenba was confined and questioned without break by relays of police officers over a period of thirty-six hours, slapped (or worse), and deprived of sleep and food, the interrogation did not violate due process because, like the protypical film noir villain, Lisenba allegedly remained calm and cool throughout. In the Court’s words, Lisenba
exhibited a self-possession, a coolness, and an acumen throughout his questioning, and at his trial, which negatives the view that he had so lost his freedom of action that the statements were not his but were the result of the deprivation of his free choice to admit, to deny, or to refuse to answer. The Court made no mention of interrogation lights in its opinion, but it registered no qualms over the pressure tactics that were admittedly used to interrogate Lisenba. Like Double Indemnity and Laura, the Court implicitly assumed that some amount of police pressure was permitted and even expected.
The “hot lights” were discussed at some length in Ashcraft v. Tennessee, however, where the Court reversed a defendant’s murder conviction based on a finding that the defendant’s confession, elicited after thirty-eight hours of non-stop questioning, was involuntary. The Court narrated the events leading up to Ashcraft’s confession:
[E]arly in the evening of Saturday, June 14, the officers came to Ashcraft’s home and ‘took him into custody.’ In the words of the Tennessee Supreme Court, ‘They took him to an office or room on the northwest corner of the fifth floor of the Shelby County jail. This office is equipped with all sorts of crime and detective devices such as a fingerprint outfit, cameras, high-powered lights, and such other devices as might be found in a homicide investigating office. . . .It appears that the officers placed Ashcraft at a table in this room on the fifth floor of the county jail with a light over his head and began to quiz him. They questioned him in relays until the following Monday morning, June 16, 1941, around nine-thirty or ten o’clock. It appears that Ashcraft from Saturday evening at seven o’clock until Monday morning at approximately nine-thirty never left this homicide room on the fifth floor.
Ashcraft’s interrogation followed the standard noir script in every detail. The interrogation room, equipped with a variety of criminal detection devices and interrogation lights, could have been lifted directly from a Hollywood set. As in Lisenba, police officers defended the extended interrogation with the assertion that after thirty-eight hours of questioning, Ashcraft remained “‘cool,’ ‘calm,’ ‘collected,’ ‘normal.”’ But here the Court diverged from the script. Ashcraft’s confession was not deemed, as it so easily might have been, the inevitable triumph of truth over criminal cunning. Instead, the Court critically noted the documented evidence of systematic police misconduct in interrogation, including the use of the “hot lights” to induce confessions, and threw out Ashcraft’s conviction on grounds that the thirty-eight hour interrogation was “so inherently coercive that its very existence is irreconcilable with the possession of mental freedom by a lone suspect against whom [the state’s] full coercive force is brought to bear.”
Ashcraft, decided in the same year that Double Indemnity and Laura were released, provided an alternative interrogation narrative, and one decidedly more liberal than pop culture’s. Certainly, the Court’s condemnation of high-pressure police questioning diverged from the hard-nosed assumptions about police questioning embedded in films like Double Indemnity and Laura.
This is not to say that the Court was unanimous in its condemnation of the popular conception of police interrogation. Justice Jackson cited Lisenba in cautioning that he, at least, was “not ready to say that the pressure to disclose crime, involved in decent detention and lengthy examination,” even if “inherently coercive,” need be “denied to a State by the Constitution, where they are not proved to have passed the individual’s ability to resist and to admit, deny, or refuse to answer.” Nonetheless, the Court’s basic direction appears to have been set. Although, over the course of the following two decades, the Court grew increasingly skeptical of high-pressure police interrogation, the dominant paradigm continued to be that of the clash of wills between suspect and interrogator, where the question was whether the pressure exerted on the suspect was proportional to her mental, physical, and emotional resources. The use of belts, whips, and extended relay questioning was clearly improper, but the exploitation of inadequately explained inconsistencies fell safely within fair territory. The suspect’s implicit obligation to produce an adequate and consistent explanation thus remained a central fact of police interrogation.
Ultimately, consideration of interrogation imagery in film and law during this era gives rise to a complex picture. On one hand, interrogation in the movies and in Supreme Court opinions share basic preconceptions. Interrogation in both mediums represented a climactic moment in the battle between good and evil, truth and crime, and pressure tactics–moderated so that the will of the suspect was not overborne–were recognized as a valuable tool to uncover wrongdoing. Sometimes the police overreached, but sometimes substantial pressure was both necessary and appropriate to expose chinks in the “almost perfect” story. At the same time, where Hollywood sought to emphasize the drama of the contest of wills, the Court began the project of crafting rules to limit the degree of pressure that interrogators might bring to bear on suspects. The attack on the “hot lights” had begun. To the extent that they lagged in reconceptualizing the interrogation-room narrative, it appears that Hollywood writers were taking their cues from the material around them, and not the other way around. Led by Justices Black and Frankfurter, the Court’s stepped-up assault on coercive interrogation tactics for the time being would put the Court further out in front of pop culture in the coming decades.
II. Perry Mason, Miranda, and Interrogation on the Witness Stand
With Brown v. Board of Education on the horizon and an increasing interest in the expansion of civil rights, both law and culture were set for major changes at the mid-century. By the time Miranda was decided, the effects of the civil rights movement and the ferment of the 1960s had wrought deep changes in popular culture, including a deep erosion in trust and sympathy for the police.
This distrust was reflected in Hollywood’s choice of pop heroes. Although popular in the 1950s, both the crime film and the cop show had almost disappeared in the early 1960s. To the extent police were portrayed at all in the popular culture of the decade, they tended to be depicted not as crime-fighting heroes but rather as “corrupt or inept.” Law, however, did not lose its attraction as a subject of pop culture. Although the police drama may have lost its luster, the stock of lawyers rose to unprecedented heights. The decade preceding Miranda witnessed a brief and unparalleled reign of the lawyer drama. Three of the most famous trial films ever made, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), 12 Angry Men (1957), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1967) debuted during this period, as did the most famous trial lawyer never to grace an actual courtroom: Perry Mason.
Just as the Supreme Court’s confession cases of the 1940s conceptualized interrogation in a manner paralleling the pop culture imagery of the era–as a battle of wits and wills between police officers and criminal suspects–Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in Miranda, like the Court’s opinions in Gideon v. Wainwright, Massiah v. United States, Escobedo v. Illinois, and Duncan v. Louisiana, reflected an approach to constitutional criminal procedure that elevated the role of lawyers above that of the police. It is not farfetched to say, as some indeed have said, that the Warren Court’s major milestones were in some sense a product of Perry Mason, or at least a reflection of the assumptions about the roles of lawyers, law, courts, prosecutors, and police common to pop cultural depictions of the era.
In the Perry Mason view of the world, the defense lawyer rather than the police detective plays the principal role of guardian of justice. Week after week on television, Perry Mason induced criminals to confess, not in the interrogation room under the hot lights, but instead in the open courtroom, in response to irrefutable evidence or withering cross-examination and with the whole community as witness. In the era of the lawyer drama, the law was certainly not depicted as perfect, as illustrated by the repeated false accusations of Mason’s clients or the unjust conviction of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. But the solution to an imperfect law offered in the Perry Mason era was not the abandonment of law, but more and better law.
The need for more and better law is precisely what Miranda sought to deliver. But if Miranda’s spin on interrogation was not truly original, its true genius, and perhaps what made it so controversial, was its wholesale inversion of the semiotics of interrogation. Hollywood writers “worth their salt” have always known that credible drama demands congruence between plot and character, as have sophisticated judges and lawyers. In Miranda, Warren sought to bolster the credence of the Court’s attempt to reshape interrogation law by presenting the story of interrogation from the perspective of the suspect rather than the police. In this respect, he followed the teaching of Peter Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men, in which Fonda explains that he does not share his fellow jurors’ initial inclination to convict the defendant because he “chose to see the case from the perspective of the defendant rather than the prosecution.” By narrating the process of interrogation by recounting the tricks described in police interrogation manuals, Miranda deftly inverted the traditional roles of criminal and cop. By emphasizing the ploys used by interrogators to induce suspects to confess, Warren cast the police as the bad guys and suspects not as “criminals” but rather isolated, fearful, and helpless victims.
Not only did Miranda shift perspective on familiar character roles, it also inverted traditional metaphors of light and darkness in the criminal law iconography. If in film noir the hot lights were a metaphor for the act of probing the dark recesses of the criminal mind–inevitably exposing the criminal’s secrets to view–in Miranda, interrogation itself became a kind of virtually “criminal” secret, and the interrogation room a place where “police violence and the ‘third degree’ flourished.” Occurring unrecorded, in private, and thus eluding our scope of understanding, the interrogation room became the procedural equivalent of the Freudian unconscious–calling forth for a different sort of confession. Miranda’s solution was to expose interrogation’s own dark secrets to public scrutiny, and in so doing to “interrogate” interrogation itself.
Ultimately, this narrative move may not have been possible without the cover provided by the pop culture tropes of the period. The interplay between the Supreme Court’s interrogation jurisprudence and popular culture’s changing depiction of the role of lawyers, police and suspects is hard to pin down. It may be, however, that just as the creators of Perry Mason needed Justices Black and Frankfurter to lay the groundwork that would make Mason a compelling character, Chief Justice Warren needed Perry Mason to establish the cultural preconditions necessary for the large-scale transformation of legal culture he so obviously envisioned.
In any event, Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Miranda, which offered as a rejoinder to Warren’s narrative the assertion that “peaceful interrogation is not one of the dark moments of the law,” suggests that Warren’s semiotic inversion did not pass wholly unnoticed. As the dissenters pointed out, the majority opinion reflected not merely a concern with the circumstances in which some confessions are made, but rather “a deep-seated distrust of all confessions.” To those who accepted the film noir image of interrogation as a necessary process of subjecting the suspect to questioning under the “hot lights,” as did Justice Harlan, Miranda was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It threatened inevitably to “return a killer, a rapist or other criminal to the streets and to the environment which produced him, to repeat his crime whenever it pleases him.” It also posed a veiled threat to every Hollywood screenwriter who needed to find a realistic way to allow his or her characters to confess in accord with the rules of dramatic narrative.
III. Dragnet and Miranda’s Popular Dissemination
It did not take long for Miranda to travel from slip opinion to television script. Less than a year after the decision was handed down, the Miranda warnings became a regular component of Sergeant Joe Friday’s arrest spiel on the television cop show, Dragnet. Dragnet, the brainchild of its star and creator Jack Webb, dramatized the day-to-day police work of the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”). The show, which first aired on radio and then ran on television from 1952-1957, and was revived in 1967 for a second run through 1970, purported to dramatize real cases drawn from the files of the LAPD. Because of Webb’s insistence on realism–real LAPD detectives served as technical advisers to the show –the new Miranda rules were duly incorporated into the stories.
Given Dragnet’s tremendous popularity, the Miranda warnings quickly entered the American consciousness, but to what end? Friday’s matter-of-fact delivery of the Miranda warnings undoubtedly suggested that law enforcement officers were cognizant of their legal duties and scrupulously respectful of civil rights. Detached, taciturn, devoted to his job and little else, Friday presented a calm and reassuring portrait of American law enforcement–an image likely to be comforting to the public and to television sponsors hoping for an antidote to the sense of a growing crime threat and perceptions of increasing disorder on the streets in the late 1960s. Miranda’s apparently easy incorporation into the arrest and police questioning rituals might also have given Dragnet viewers the impression that respecting civil rights in general, and Miranda in particular, was not a difficult ordeal for the police. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Dragnet’s treatment of Miranda suggested that the new procedures were in any event largely symbolic. On any typical episode, the arrest proceeded as follows: First, Friday or his partner would recite the Miranda warnings. Second, as soon as the warnings were given, Friday or his partner would launch into questioning. Third, in response, suspects volunteered (often incriminating) answers. On Dragnet, recitation of the warnings did nothing to change the essential nature of the custodial encounter.
In retrospect, Hollywood’s decision to cast Miranda in this symbolic and ineffectual manner is not surprising; the dramatic demand for confession was as great after Miranda as it had been before. An interesting question, however, is whether Joe Friday’s taciturn treatment of Miranda had any effect in actual interrogation rooms. Given that Miranda itself has had little, if any, effect on the confession rate, perhaps Joe Friday did teach a lesson to police and their suspects. Several studies of police interrogation after Miranda have documented that police typically deliver Miranda in essentially the same droning monotone as Joe Friday, a tactic calculated to minimize the perception that the stakes have increased. What happens in real life is thus essentially what happened on Dragnet: the warnings are read, and the suspect talks.
Dragnet, of course, depicted the criminal justice system from the perspective of law enforcement officers. As such, it demanded that viewers empathize with cops, not criminals. Nonetheless, the relatively peaceful, matter-of-fact, just-the-facts-ma’am policing style shown on Dragnet drew from and suggested a system that was fundamentally at peace with the law. On Dragnet, the police were competent and disinterested, they caught the bad guys, and they played “by the book.” Consistent with the values of Perry Mason and the lawyer dramas of the earlier part of the decade, Dragnet presented “a formal, idealistic, civics conception of the criminal justice system. The police and judges are still on the same side,” and “law, order, and justice are still closely related.”
IV. The Post-Miranda Era
Joe Friday’s stoic acceptance of Miranda, however, hardly reflected the storm of controversy that surrounded Miranda in the “real world.” In Congress and in police departments across the nation, Miranda was greeted with outrage and hostility. Although that hostility was not reflected on Dragnet, during the 1970s, television crime fighters grew increasingly jaded and dismissive both of Miranda and of the need more generally to protect the civil rights of criminal suspects. Indeed, Jack Webb’s sequel to the Dragnet series–Adam-12 (which ran from 1968-1975)–regularly featured uniformed LAPD officers complaining about the Warren Court’s criminal procedure decisions. By the time Kojak debuted in 1976, the dominant attitude of cops toward law had undergone a total transformation from the Perry Mason/Dragnet era.
Kojak, played by bald-is-beautiful Telly Savalas, was a hard-nosed, “blue-collar, ethnic cop” who “was tougher than his predecessors, as well as more violent, unyielding, and obsessed with the way criminals were ‘getting off’ because the police were not allowed to do their job properly.” In stark contrast to Detective Friday’s stoic and dutiful delivery of the Miranda warnings to arrestees, Kojak glibly announced to his captives in a first-season episode: “You guys all know your rights, you don’t have to say anything.” In another episode, a suspect interrupted his interrogation by asserting that he would like a lawyer, and Kojak retorted, “Doesn’t everybody?” The interrogation continued without a lawyer. As Kojak demonstrates, by 1976, television cop shows had taken a turn away from the bland, just-the-facts-ma’am style of Dragnet and stopped doing things “by the book.” Not only did Hollywood cool to Dragnet’s (and Miranda’s) sense of procedural regularity, Hollywood affirmatively embraced the perspective of the dissenters in Miranda who predicted not only that Miranda would return rapists and killers to the streets, but that it would harm “those who rely on the public authority for protection and who without it can only engage in violent self-help with guns, knives and the help of their neighbors similarly inclined.”
Dirty Harry was the first of several major Hollywood films to dramatize that prediction. In Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood starred as Detective Harry Callahan, a rogue cop with blatant disdain for the law but a “good heart.” Merciless to the bad guys, Dirty Harry is precisely the kind of cop you want on your side when the going gets tough. Rich in a symbolism of political and cultural criticism, the set-up of the movie involves the San Francisco police department’s failing efforts to catch a serial killer loose on the streets of San Francisco. The killer has kidnapped a young girl and has demanded ransom. The Mayor, somewhat like Neville Chamberlain in 1939, agrees to appease the killer and pay the ransom. Although Detective Callahan is scornful, he consents to deliver the ransom money (although obviously he has no intention of obeying orders). After a vicious battle that almost costs Callahan his life, Dirty Harry tracks down and corners the killer in an empty football stadium. Displaying no mercy, Callahan coldly shoots the fleeing killer in the leg, and in a haunting and violent scene, demands to know where the kidnapped girl is. When the killer fails to reply, Callahan grinds his heel into the killer’s mangled limb, provoking a desperate cry: “I want a lawyer . . . I have a right to a lawyer . . . I have rights . . . .” The scene fades to black while the wounded killer howls like an animal in pain.
The film immediately cuts to Detective Callahan watching the girl’s dead body being retrieved from a hole, confirming that his act of torture succeeded in inducing the killer to confess. Then, in the next scene, Callahan has been called into his boss’s office and arrives expecting congratulations. Instead, he is berated for his use of unlawful methods, informed that his search violated the suspect’s Miranda and Fourth Amendment rights, and told that the evidence is inadmissible in court and that the killer would go free.
The interrogation scene in Dirty Harry contrasts vividly, to say the least, with those in Laura and Dragnet. Not only does the film openly accuse the law of coddling vicious criminals to the detriment of public safety, but it seems to challenge the very premise of police regulation of interrogation. Dirty Harry’s political message is hardly subtle: the law is the problem, not the solution, because it creates a wedge between the forces of justice that need information and the criminals who seeks to conceal it. And what is the law? What are the rights that let serial killers get off the hook for their crimes? Largely, the film suggests, Miranda, and particularly its promised right to counsel. Dirty Harry makes Miranda an icon of all that is perverse and ineffective in the justice system. Dirty Harry’s torture of the suspect, though portrayed with brutality, is ultimately meant to seem justifiable as a matter of simple justice, even if not legal in the eyes of the lawyers. In this manner, Dirty Harry not only takes on Miranda, it harkens all the way back to Brown v. Mississippi. If law undermines the ability of cops to get confessions from clearly guilty suspects, does it not also undermine the possibility of justice?
Like Dragnet, the cop shows of the 1970s told their stories from the point of view of the police. As the cop shows became more sophisticated, the characters of the police men and women they featured gradually grew increasingly textured. But the criminals of this era, unlike their film noir predecessors, remained simple caricatures: animals so lost in their lust to do evil that it rarely mattered what fate befell them–arrest, shooting, or death by car crash–as long as they were ultimately tamed and subdued. In Dirty Harry’s climactic interrogation scene, Detective Callahan does not question a person, he breaks an animal.
Released in 1971, Dirty Harry anticipated the Burger and Rehnquist Courts’ campaign to scale back Miranda. Numerous factors undoubtedly contributed to the backlash against Miranda. Most obviously, conservative judicial appointments from the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations replaced liberals who were sympathetic to the Warren Court’s progressive goals. But it is likely that pop culture’s attack on law’s benign image, an attack that necessarily undermined the Court’s own legitimacy, further encouraged the Court’s retreat. After all, the Justices, lacking both purse and sword, “must rely on public support for the implementation of their policies.” Here, it is Hollywood that is clearing space for a post-Warren Court retrenchment by reshaping the iconography, not only of interrogation, but of law itself. In any event, with only a few exceptions, what followed Dirty Harry was a barrage of decisions that whittled down the scope and effect of Miranda and, at the same time, the costs to police of using pressure tactics to induce confessions. The first, and perhaps the most important, of these decisions was handed down the same year Dirty Harry was released. In Harris v. New York, the Court held that statements obtained in violation of Miranda could be used for impeachment purposes. Harris undercut the hope that Miranda would provide the foundation for an interrogation-room code of conduct, and gave police ample incentive to ignore Miranda when doing so proved convenient. It also set the tone for the decisions to follow. Three years later, Michigan v. Tucker introduced the theory of Miranda as a “prophylactic” rule. In 1979, North Carolina v. Butler established the critical clarification (really, partial overruling) of Miranda’s waiver rules, relieving police of the supposed heavy burden of showing that a suspect expressly waived his Miranda rights, so long as the facts and circumstances show that an implicit waiver was knowing and intelligent. Numerous decisions in the 1980s and 1990s only further watered down Miranda’s substantive protections.
By the time Dickerson came before the Court, Miranda had been broken– much like Dirty Harry’s serial killer. As the Court somewhat euphemistically stated, “[O]ur subsequent cases have reduced the impact of the Miranda rule on legitimate law enforcement while reaffirming the decision’s core ruling . . . .” The notion that Miranda would make obsolete the backroom interrogation, that confessions would be made in the courtroom, if at all, or for that matter, that suspects needed much legal protection from their interrogators was long gone. Miranda as legal formalism, however, was more entrenched than ever both in popular culture and in legal practice. Police departments had grown accustomed to Miranda, and even began to see its charm. While Miranda–especially in its watered down post-Dirty Harry incarnation–placed few real constraints on police interrogation, it shielded interrogation practices from substantive scrutiny. As long as Miranda’s formal warnings and waiver requirements were met, any confession obtained thereafter was almost always been treated as voluntary.
Perhaps because the post-Miranda crime shows have focused so heavily on cops, the dramatic function of confession has assumed an ever more instrumental quality, at least on the cop shows. Confession undoubtedly did little for the killer’s soul in Dirty Harry, but it did permit police to find the abducted victim. This instrumentalism might be seen as a reflection of deeper societal attitudes toward criminals over the course of a three-decade period that saw the incarceration rate quadruple since Dirty Harry was released.
By the 1990s, Miranda’s iconization was complete. The Miranda warnings indeed had become “embedded” in popular culture. Today, a whole complex of narrative events signifying a character’s arrest can be concisely depicted by a writer merely with the image of a police officer taking physical custody of a suspect and intoning: “You have the right to remain silent . . . .” At the same time, a new brand of television cop shows such as Homicide and, in particular, NYPD Blue, have constructed their basic narrative formulas around the suspect’s interrogation. As such, the suspect’s decision to forgo his or her right to counsel and to talk to police has taken a central place in the storyline. For better or worse, the reading of Miranda warnings is no longer the mere formalism it was on Dragnet. Indeed, because the narrative in these shows is driven by the unfolding interrogation, and the dramatic catharsis almost invariably arrives in the form of the suspect’s confession, the Miranda rights serve, alongside the suspect’s own mental and psychological prowess, as the foil that creates the story’s dramatic tension.
Thus over the course of nearly 70 years, the imagery of interrogation seems to have traveled a circle in four curvilinear steps. In the pre-Miranda period of the 1930s and 1940s, police use of interrogation room pressure was normal and expected. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed an accelerating rejection of pressure tactics by the Supreme Court and an era of popular culture which increasingly, albeit briefly, held up lawyers as heroes and law as a force of both truth (Perry Mason) and order (Dragnet). These developments laid the foundation for the classic “Miranda era,” which was characterized by a popular, albeit temporary, inversion of the traditional demonization of the criminal and glorification of the cop, a corresponding celebration of formal law and of criminal defense lawyers in particular, and which saw the mass public dissemination of the warnings on shows like Dragnet and Adam-12. Beginning with President Nixon’s election in 1968, however, the Miranda era gave way to a post-Miranda period characterized by an increasing backlash against the Warren Court agenda. In the post-Miranda world, Miranda was targeted by critics and reactionaries and became an icon of the law’s perceived tenderness toward criminals. And at the same time that Miranda became an object of derision in the crime dramas of the 1970s and 1980s, it was slowly but steadily gutted by the Supreme Court in a long series of decisions that sought to make compliance with the Miranda rules simple and to minimize the consequences of noncompliance.
By 1999, Miranda had been neutered as an instrument of progressive legal regulation even while it had become the symbol of constitutional rights in the popular imagination. Viewed from this vantage point, the Court’s decision in Dickerson was a fait accompli. Having cut Miranda down to manageable size, a conservative Court had nothing left to gain by formally overruling Miranda. But it stood to lose an inestimable amount of popular esteem should it purport to withdraw from the citizenry the most familiar set of legal rights known to them. It perhaps even risked losing “the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, contemporary cop shows have subtly altered Miranda by making it part and parcel of the drama of interrogation. If Miranda is no longer vilified as the enemy of the beat cop, neither is it his friend. Still, it remains as ineffective a safeguard for preventing confessions as ever. In retrospect, this process, too, seems to have been inevitable. Miranda’s purpose–the regulation of custodial interrogation–strikes such a sensitive narrative nerve that its neutralization was a dramatic imperative. To comply with the demands of verisimilitude, screenwriters had no choice but to incorporate Miranda into the dramatic representation of the interrogation moment. At the same time, the overarching narrative demands of the format continued to require confessions. As a result, although Miranda has been widely publicized in pop culture, it has been portrayed in a manner that underscores its impotence; in popular culture, Miranda warnings or no, the suspect always confesses.
Finally, although Miranda’s post-Dragnet decline can be understood partly as the work of an increasingly conservative Court, a response to a continuing explosion in the crime rate, and a pervasive cultural cynicism fueled by Vietnam and Watergate, it also must be understood in part as an almost inevitable aesthetic development. After all, films and television shows are first and foremost entertainment vehicles; their function is to titillate and amuse, all with the intent of maximizing viewership from the right demographic and, a fortiori, network and studio revenue. Given the aesthetic demands of popular drama, Dragnet-style rectitude inevitably had to give way to something more interesting. As one writer in the 1970s complained, “Our whole show has to come to a dead stop every week while the cop politely reads the crook his rights.” And as another added, “This civil rights business may be all right in real life but it makes miserable drama.”
The Dirty Harry-style paranoia eventually faded, but it left in its wake a pop culture version of Miranda in which the warnings have become an icon representing the whole awkward apparatus of courts, law, and constitutional regulation of criminal justice. To many, these rights undoubtedly “stand for” the very idea of constitutional law.
Because the Miranda warnings–routine or reviled–have become synonymous with constitutional law–and thus with the Supreme Court itself–it is no surprise that the Court declined to eradicate them in Dickerson. Doing so would have amounted to eradication of law itself in the eyes of popular culture. The Court’s institutional interest in preserving its own popular status, and in protecting a legal regime that, thanks to the media, looks like it bends over backward for defendants, while in reality (as a result of a sustained judicial attack on its fundamental functions) provides defendants very little legal protection, allows a conservative Court to have its cake and eat it, too.
In sum, just as the media necessarily creates and depends upon signs, symbols, and icons, and manipulates them to serve its basic purposes–to tell its stories effectively and efficiently, to keep viewers engaged, and to keep sponsors happy–in narrating and explicating legal decisions, courts do precisely the same thing, with their own institutional interests dictating the manner in which those signs will be treated. Certainly, the semiotics of interrogation, followed over time, elucidates important changes in popular and legal assumptions about a variety of aspects of criminal justice, including the identity of criminals, the causes of criminality, the purposes of interrogation, and the proper role of interrogators. The fact that popular and legal iconography has moved along the same trajectory suggests not only that popular culture draws its source material from the courts, but also that the courts narrate, and perhaps resolve, legal problems based in no small part on iconographic assumptions drawn from popular culture and the media as well.
PHYLLIS: The other night we drove home from a party. He was drunk again. When we got into the garage he just sat there with his head on the steering wheel and the motor still running. And I thought what it would be like if I didn’t switch it off, just closed the garage door and left him there.
NEFF: I’ll tell you what it would be like, if you had that accident policy, and tried to pull a monoxide job. We have a guy in our office named Keyes. For him a set-up like that would be just like a slice of rare roast beef. In three minutes he’d know it wasn’t an accident. In ten minutes you’d be sitting under the hot lights. In half an hour you’d be signing your name to a confession.
a confession made by a person in custody is not always the result of an overborne will. The police may be midwife to a declaration naturally born of remorse, or relief, or desperation, or calculation. If that is so, if the ‘suction process’ has not been at the prisoner and drained his capacity for freedom of choice, does not the awful responsibility of the police for maintaining the peaceful order of society justify the means which they have employed?
Id. at 576.