Volume 20 - 2011
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Miranda Warnings

Reading Levels Affect

Right Against

Self-

Incrimination

By Adrienne Nettles

More than four decades after the landmark Supreme Court case that established Miranda warnings to constitutionally guarantee a person's right against self-incrimination, research by Richard Rogers is giving new meaning to "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."

Richard Rogers

The research of Richard Rogers, a leading authority on the language variability and impact of Miranda warnings, is expected to set the stage for a new generation of Miranda measures.

Photo by: Angilee Wilkerson

Rogers, a University of North Texas Regents Professor of psychology, is using a National Science Foundation grant to study the impact of variations in Miranda warnings on adults, juveniles and Spanish-speaking defendants across the country. In the nearly decade since he began the research, he has generated extensive knowledge of Miranda warnings and waivers, stimulated further Miranda research and influenced the American Bar Association and appellate courts in their legal thinking. His research is expected to set the stage for a new generation of Miranda measures to evaluate Miranda vocabulary, comprehension and reasoning.

Rogers' most recent findings include the discovery of more than 800 variations in Miranda warnings used by police jurisdictions throughout the U.S. These warnings range from 53 to 450 words in length. He discovered that the average juvenile Miranda warning was 100 words longer than general warnings given to adults. He found variations in reading levels within the warnings, with some requiring more than a college education to understand. Translated warnings often did not include complete information.

"We found a number of times key information was left out of the Spanish version that was found in the English version," Rogers says. "Some of the Spanish translations were just bad translations. How do you call this equal justice when you're leaving out or mistranslating information?"

Landmark Ruling

Miranda Research

Richard Rogers' current studies of Miranda rights focus on Miranda reasoning and decision-making regarding whether to waive constitutional protections against self-incrimination.

As part of this process, he also researches "time discounting," in which offenders choose to waive their Miranda rights out of situational stress or frustration to get the process over rather than considering that it could result in a conviction with a significant number of years in prison.

"One of the first things we're working on is Miranda's vocabulary to find key words common to comprehension," Rogers says. "If we eliminate warnings of more than 150 words and those that require more than a college-level education, it's a major step forward in improving the comprehension of Miranda warnings."

Rogers received the 2011 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy from the American Psychological Association, after receiving its Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Applied Research in 2008. It is only the third time in APA history that a recipient has been honored with both awards.

While earlier research recognized that different Miranda warnings exist, the research failed to study the effects of the differences on defendants, says Rogers, who has been studying legal issues since the 1980s.

He says an estimated 318,000 people a year give up their rights without benefit of counsel and a full understanding of what they're giving up.

"We actually do better when Miranda warnings are given in a written format, but there are still a significant number of individuals who don't understand half of Miranda warnings," he says. "The more complex and longer the language, the harder it is for individuals to comprehend."

To understand how these variations impact adult and juvenile defendants, Rogers looked back at the 1966 landmark Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona.

While the court "specified the ingredients" for Miranda warnings, it failed to specify the language to use, leaving Miranda open to interpretation by legal experts and law enforcement agencies, Rogers says.

In 2002, when he began reviewing how forensic psychologists conducted evaluations of detainees to determine if they knowingly and voluntarily waived their right to silence, he came to two conclusions.

"Very little information was known about Miranda warnings and how different warnings affected Miranda waiver decisions," he says. "And the standard assessment methods available at the time had limited validity."

Legal Opinions

Today, Rogers' research on Miranda warnings has been cited in numerous legal opinions, most recently in defense of a Florida Supreme Court ruling that went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Florida v. Powell, Florida's Supreme Court had held that Tampa police informing the detainee of his "right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions" fell short of informing him of his right to counsel during interrogation as provided under Miranda.

In its brief to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the ruling, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers cited Rogers' research as one of its primary sources.

The brief focused on his research on criminal defendants' literacy skills and decreased comprehension levels under the stress of interrogation or when warnings are given orally.

In February 2010, the justices ruled 7-2 that Miranda warnings were reasonably conveyed to the suspect.

"Although the warnings were not the clearest possible formulation of Miranda's right-to-counsel advisement, they were sufficiently comprehensive and comprehensible when given a common sense reading," the justices wrote.

Leading Authority

Despite the ruling, the arguments in the case surrounding the literacy levels of criminal defendants and whether they have the capacity to fully understand their Miranda rights remain of paramount importance to legal experts.

Rogers' work has been featured in publications of the American Psychological Association and American Bar Association. His extensive research has cast him as today's "leading scientific authority on the linguistic variability and impact of Miranda warnings," says Eric Drogin, a faculty member of the Harvard Medical School.

Drogin is among the legal experts who have turned to Rogers' research and findings on Miranda warnings.

In February 2010, Rogers' research also was the primary source for an American Bar Association resolution calling for simplified Miranda warning language for juvenile arrestees, says Drogin, who is chair-elect of the ABA Section of Science & Technology Law.

"Professor Rogers' unparalleled research was a critical factor in my efforts to persuade the ABA of the importance of this resolution and the validity of the notions underlying it," Drogin says.

"This research elevated the discussion from one of politics and practice to one of science," he says. "Such a transformation is necessary in crafting and applying truly informed, progressive policies for legal reform."

Now that the resolution has been adopted as official ABA policy, Drogin says those seeking to influence legislatures and appellate courts "can invoke the perspective of the largest voluntary professional association in the world."

Rogers says his goal is to continue to develop better tools for forensic psychologists and psychiatrists to understand adult and juvenile defendants, and that means continuing his Miranda research.

"If you believe in constitutional protections," he says, "then they should be equally applied and available to all."

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