How Miranda Rights Work

A copy of the Miranda warning from 1966. Some jurisdictions require the arrestee to sign the document showing he was apprised of his rights. See more police pictures.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

"You have the right to remain silent."

So begins one of the most iconic recitations in U.S. culture, and TV crime show fans around the world know what comes next: "Anything you do say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If can't afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. If you waive these rights, you may invoke them at a later time."

The so-called Miranda rights are a cornerstone of the U.S. justice system. They're said so often in TV and movies they've nearly lost all meaning, at least to those outside the criminal, legal and law-enforcement communities. But in April 2013, followers of the Boston Marathon bombings case were reminded that they do, in fact, mean a lot.

After an epic manhunt put much of Boston on lockdown, the sole surviving suspect in the bombings was captured. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was "in custody," and he'd confessed. The city breathed a sigh of relief. Within hours, though, the headlines announced what appeared to be a hitch: Tsarnaev, it seemed, hadn't been "read his rights" [source: Johnson].

And then confusion: Was it a hitch? What about the confession? Did that mean he would be released? Did the Miranda rights even apply in this case?

The intention behind the Miranda law is straightforward, but its implementation is sometimes not. It goes back to a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Miranda v. Arizona, an appeal of the 1963 rape and murder convictions of Ernesto Miranda. Miranda, like Tsarnaev, had confessed to the crimes in question. Also like Tsarnaev, Miranda hadn't been read his rights before he confessed.

Though technically, there was no such thing as being "read his rights" until Miranda's appeal reached the Supreme Court.