Miranda comprehension and misconceptions reflect distinct abilities

Miranda comprehension and misconceptions reflect distinct abilities


Contrary to widespread assumptions, serious Miranda misconceptions commonly occur, even among detainees with intact verbal abilities and those with extensive arrest histories. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.


Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health Services | 2018, Vol. 17, No. 1, 13-24

Miranda Misconceptions of Criminal Detainees: Differences Based on Age Groups and Prior Arrests


Darby B. Winningham, Department of Psychology, University of North Texas, Denton, TX
Richard Rogers, Department of Psychology, University of North Texas, Denton, TX
Eric Y. Drogin, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA (L3)


Knowing and intelligent Miranda waivers remain the cornerstone of our 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination in the United States. Until recently, however, Miranda-related research and practice have focused almost entirely on comprehension of proffered warnings and waivers as opposed to identifying ingrained misconceptions that affect how detainees process this input. The current archival investigation brings together data on Miranda misconceptions for more than 799 detainees in the United States, ranging from 11–67 years of age. Miranda misconceptions were systematically examined on the Miranda Quiz (MQ) and parallel items of the Juvenile Miranda Quiz (JMQ) across four age groups (i.e., younger juveniles, older juveniles, emerging adults, and adults) with varying histories of prior arrests. As expected, the two adult groups had fewer Miranda misconceptions than the two juvenile groups. Contrary to widespread assumptions, serious Miranda misconceptions commonly occur, even among detainees with intact verbal abilities and those with extensive arrest histories.


Miranda misconceptions, Miranda rights, Miranda Quiz

Summary of the Research

“The current investigation addressed potentially devastating misconceptions concerning Miranda rights in the U.S. As an important distinction, professionals and the public alike may hold false beliefs about Miranda warnings (e.g., easily understood and virtually the same in any jurisdiction). For Miranda misconceptions, we focused specifically on inaccurate knowledge or beliefs held by criminal suspects that may affect their waiver decisions (i.e., invoke or waive Miranda rights). These findings also served as an initial template for examining misbeliefs concerning the rights of the accused in other countries” (p. 14).

“As the primary goal, the current investigation systematically evaluates whether detainees’ Miranda misconceptions differ between age groups. Similar to Miranda comprehension, it is predicted that younger age groups will have more Miranda misconceptions than their older counterparts. To examine this goal, detainees were divided into four age groups. Consistent with Viljoen et al. (2007), juveniles are categorized here as ‘younger’ (i.e., ages 15 and below) and ‘older’ (i.e., ages 16 and 17). As noted, age has often been used as a proxy for maturity and concomitant experience with the criminal justice system. In J.D.B., the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed that juveniles were ‘generally less mature and responsible than adults’ (p. 271)” (p. 15).

“As a secondary goal, the current study investigates whether prior arrests can help to explain differences in Miranda misconceptions for any of the four age groups. Courts often assumed that arrestees build a cumulative understanding of Miranda that could potentially improve their waiver decisions. This perspective was commonly associated with the Supreme Court’s decision in Fare v. Michael C. (1979), which questioned the efficacy of ‘imposing rigid restraints on police and courts in dealing with an experienced older juvenile with an extensive prior record’ (p. 725). The current investigation examined whether more prior arrests are related to fewer Miranda misconceptions for any of the four age groups” (p. 16).

Regarding Miranda misconceptions, the researchers found that the adult groups were essentially indistinguishable. “Only one Miranda misconception stood out as a significant cause for concern about detainees in the emerging adult group. Nearly half believed that there was a legal recourse (i.e., retracting a confession) that could be invoked in instances of police deception. However, as noted by Rogers and Drogin (p. 121), ‘Most Miranda misassumptions do not impair the waiver decision.’ They provided an extensive list of 20 Miranda misconceptions that could potentially impair Miranda waivers. However, retraction of a confession due to police deception was not included because it is unlikely to be considered in rendering the waiver decision. If arrestees believe that the investigating officers are lying to them, then such perceived prevarications are unlikely to form the basis of their waiver decision” (p. 20).

“A major objective was to examine whether younger juveniles were substantially more susceptible to Miranda misconceptions than other age groups. Previous research suggested this might be the case, but did not investigate it directly. In looking at Miranda comprehension, age does make a difference; however, as discussed subsequently, Miranda comprehension and misconceptions reflect quite distinct abilities. Although Rogers et al. directly examined differences in psychosocial maturity—a construct closely related to age—that study’s findings were limited by the small number of participants with low maturity” (p. 20-21).

“While participants of all ages had relatively few misconceptions about the right to silence, juveniles performed substantially worse on the next three Miranda components (Risks of Talking, Right to an Attorney, and Free Legal Services). When considered as a composite, younger juveniles scored poorly at 65.3% correct and slightly lower than older juveniles. Although a minimal trend was observed, the differences were not significant and the effect sizes remained very modest. Simply put, both juvenile groups performed poorly on these Miranda components” (p. 21).

“The broader comparison of juveniles and adults yielded more interesting and variable results. For Risks of Talking, larger effect sizes occurred between juvenile groups and adults. In contrast, Right to Counsel yielded very similar effect sizes ranging from. As observed in the Results, Free Legal Services consistently produced the largest effect sizes. Because juvenile arrestees—in virtually all cases—lack the financial resources to fund legal counsel, it is imperative that they understand their access to free legal services. In looking more closely at individual Miranda Quiz items, legalese (e.g., “indicted” and “indigent”) in Miranda warnings constitutes a formidable barrier, leading to misunderstandings in the majority of cases. In addition, juveniles are often used to parents shouldering most of the family’s financial responsibilities. It is therefore not surprising that more than 40% wrongly believe their parents will be burdened with likely unaffordable legal costs. On this point, Rogers and Drogin (2014) described how this fundamental inaccuracy could lead to an invalid Miranda waiver, because ‘their decision to forgo counsel is based on a false premise’ (p. 234)” (p. 21).

“Data from the current investigation suggest that Miranda misconceptions are not necessarily related to poor recall of Miranda warnings. Most legally involved juveniles completely omit the fifth Miranda component, Continuing Legal Rights …The current juveniles appeared to have a general grasp of their Continuing Legal Rights with average scores of 2.15 for younger and 2.18 for older juveniles out of maximum of 3 points” (p. 21).

“The disjunction between Miranda recall and Miranda misconceptions also appears in the other direction, with comparatively good recall yet substantial percentages of misconceptions. Relying on Rogers et al. (2016), omissions are very low for Right to Counsel: 19.2% (written advisement) and 16.0% (oral advisement). Yet, Miranda misconceptions are slightly greater than Continuing Legal Rights for both younger and older” (p. 21).

Translating Research into Practice

“Rogers (2011) posited the professional neglect hypothesis to explain why so few cases with impaired Miranda abilities are referred for forensic consultation. Using conservative estimates, only about one of every 200 potential Miranda cases are evaluated. Of course, in some instances (e.g., drug charges), other evidence may minimize the importance of outright confessions. Nonetheless, many seasoned criminal attorneys—including public defenders with large caseloads—have failed to challenge the validity of a single Miranda waiver during their entire careers. Rogers (2011) concluded that this professional neglect was based on a core misassumption that ‘everyone already knows the Miranda warnings.’ This professional neglect may also extend to forensic psychologists with only about one-fourth conducting very small numbers of Miranda evaluations” (p. 22).

“Collaboration among researchers in transnational research is urgently needed to ensure legal rights and safeguards serve their intended purpose. Research comparing and contrasting the effectiveness of warnings and associated procedures could rigorously evaluate which methods actually protect the rights of the accused and which might be better characterized as legally required, obligatory rituals. Fundamental fairness and justice demand effective measures that serve the courts, the prosecution, and the defense” (p. 22).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Our recent PsycINFO search of the international literature found no empirical research outside of North America that addressed arrestees’ understanding and appreciation of their legal rights. This dearth of applied research is very concerning” (p. 22).

“A further methodological concern is whether the widespread popularity of Miranda serves to mislead arrestees in other countries. In Canada, for example, most members of the public (86.3%)—perhaps due to American media exposure—wrongly believe they have the right to counsel during police questioning. Alternatively, members of the public may simply possess an unwarrantedly positive view of their legal protections. For instance, a majority of American public wrongly believed that Miranda guarantees them an immediate advisement of their rights as well as specifics of why they are being arrested; however, these protections are afforded by the EU Letter of Rights, but not by Miranda. Such fundamental errors merit further investigation, regardless of their source” (p. 22).

As a specific methodological improvement, Miranda research must move beyond the expediency of using age as proxy for maturity. Moreover, some measures of maturity used for Miranda research (e.g., Psychosocial Maturity Inventory Form D) need to be updated and further validated. Recently, Kemp, et al. (2017) provided an important and integrative survey of perspectives on developmental maturity by sampling the opinions of psychologists from four specialties: developmental, forensic, child-adolescent, and neuropsychological. Results underscored the complexity of developmental maturity, as features of independent functioning were coupled with general cognitive processing, emotion regulation, and decision-making. The resulting model can provide a more complete picture of developmental maturity and the role of its components regarding Miranda misconceptions and waiver decisions” (p. 22).

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