As Seen on TV

How did Miranda make its way out of the courtroom and into pop culture? Law scholar Ron Steiner gives Nathan a TV guide.

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JOANNE: Now, that we’ve explored the legal thinking that went into the Miranda decision, we’ve got another question to answer here, Nathan.

NATHAN: And what’s that, Joanne?

JOANNE: How did this decision migrate out of the courtroom and into pop culture?


It’s a good question. And as it happens, that part of the story starts with another question.

RON STEINER: What exactly are we supposed to say when we arrest somebody?

JOANNE: That’s legal scholar Ron Steiner. He says that the California Attorney General, like many prosecutors around the country, wanted to ensure confessions were not going to get thrown out because of this new Supreme Court decision. And while the decision laid out specific rights, it didn’t have specific language.

So the attorney general took matters into his own hands. He asked the local district attorney to break down the court’s decision into a simple paragraph that could be easily remembered by both police and suspects.


RON STEINER: The court wanted the suspect to know the right to remain silent, the right to have an attorney, the right to have a free attorney if they couldn’t afford it. And he distilled that language into a credit card sized card that police officers could carry. He, on the side, actually owned a print shop. And he realized that, hey, everybody is going to need these. And so, pretty quickly, statewide and then even beyond that he started marketing these little credit card sized Miranda cards. And so, this phenomenon that we now call “reading him his rights, was born out of that little print shop.


JOANNE: Within months of a Supreme Court case, cops across the country were carrying these little cards. Carol Cooley remembers carrying them when he was on the job. Years later, he and his fellow officers sometimes ran into the man he’d arrested interrogated back in 1963– the guy who started the whole court case in the first place. By then, Ernesto Miranda carried Miranda Warning cards too.

CARROLL COOLEY: That is true. He would ask police officers, if they had any Miranda Warning cards, and we would give him cards. He used to sign that. So he would sell them for $1 or $2, whatever he could get for them.

NATHAN: By 1967, at least one Miranda card also ended up in the hands of a man named Jack Webb.

RON STEINER: At the time the Miranda decision was handed down, one of the most popular television shows on the very limited menu of shows you could watch was Dragnet, Jack Webb’s landmark, police procedural TV show. And Jack Webb had this almost obsessive compulsive pattern of trying to get every detail right.

NATHAN: Give us a sense of Jack Webb’s commitment to realism.

RON STEINER: They went down to Parker Center, the LA police headquarters, and there’s a kind of a funny story of him having his production assistants get down on their hands and knees and count the flecks in the tile on the floor, because the tile was kind of a black and white tile with these different flecks in it to give it a little texture. And he wanted to be able to match the floor tile exactly.

Now, that’s a detail that just can’t matter, right?

NATHAN: Right.

RON STEINER: To the audience, the viewer, but he wanted to get every detail right. And he thought, in consultation with the police experts that he was working with, that Miranda mattered. And that if his officers that he portrayed were going to be going strictly by the book and doing everything right, that they would need to give a Miranda Warning, and a proper Miranda Warning each time somebody was being subjected to questioning after arrest. And so, he had Miranda written into the script.

JOE FRIDAY: Sit down.

BILL GANNON: Before we talk we want to advise you of your constitutional rights.

MALE SPEAKER: I’m a minor, daddy.

JOE FRIDAY: Minors have rights too.

BILL GANNON: Any statement you make to us might be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to the presence of an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed before any questioning. Do you understand that?

MALE SPEAKER: What’s the difference? I’ve got nothing to hide.

JOE FRIDAY: Do you understand it?

MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, yeah I dig. I dig.

RON STEINER: So the American public suddenly became aware of this new step in police procedure. And he continued that and to his next police procedural show Adam 12, which was kind of another generation of cops on the street in LA. Every week people were subjected to one or two readings of the Miranda Warning, and the American public quickly became aware of the fact that when you’ve been arrested and when you’re being subjected to custodial interrogation, they’re supposed to read you your rights.

NATHAN: So Miranda became a marker of a certain type of cop show, one committed to getting the details right, like Webb’s did. Eventually, the warning became so ubiquitous on cop shows, that script writers rarely put more than the first line into an episode, confident that a generation of viewers raised on shows like Dragnet could fill in the rest.

RON STEINER: So you have this fade to black phase of the Miranda Warning.

NATHAN: This part will sound familiar to anyone whose TV diet included shows like Law and order or Hill Street Blues

MALE SPEAKER: You bring me a root beer?

MALE SPEAKER: Michael Dobson, you’re under arrest for the murder of Emily Dobson. You have right to remain silent. Anything you do say can and will be used against you in the–

RON STEINER: Music swells, camera goes to black. We’re going to go to commercial, maybe you can go to the bathroom, and when you come back, we move on.