Today marks the 48th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Harris v. New York. The Harris case marks the first major blow to the landmark holding of Miranda v. Arizona. The case stands as the first major exception to the protections offered by Miranda, allowing the state to offer otherwise inadmissible statements as evidence for the purpose of impeaching a witness’s credibility.
The case behind Harris came soon after the landmark decision in Miranda and represents the first successful attempt by the State to carve out an exception to the new protections. On January 7th, 1966, Mr. Viven Harris was arrested as a result of a police sting operation. On January 4th and 6th, an undercover police officer had purchased Heroin from Mr. Harris. When Mr. Harris was arrested the officers informed him of his right to remain silent but he was not informed of his right to counsel or his right to counsel if he was indigent. When the interrogation began, Mr. Harris immediately said he had made the sale at the behest of the undercover officer and asked for an attorney. The Assistant District Attorney terminated the interview and set the interrogation for the next day. The following day Mr. Harris indicated that he had changed his mind and would speak without an attorney.
Without his attorney present, Harris admitted to selling Heroin to the undercover officer on both occasions. However, when trial began Mr. Harris changed his story. Mr. Harris took the stand in his own defense, and on direct examination denied selling Heroin on either date. However, he did admit to selling baking soda to the undercover cop on January 6th. The prosecutor asked if Mr. Harris could remember what he told the Assistant District Attorney after he was arrested, but Mr. Harris said he could not. The Prosecutor then asked to read part of the unmirandized statement he had made to refresh his memory. The Trial Court determined that Mr. Harris’s statement had not been made with a proper “Miranda Warning”, and as such could not be used as evidence against him. However, the Trial court ruled that the statement could be used to impeach his current testimony. Mr. Harris attorney objected and was overruled. The prosecutor then read part of his statement and asked him again if he remembered the conversation. Mr. Harris said he did not. The judge then gave an instruction to the jury that Mr. Harris statement could not be used to determine guilt, only credibility.
Mr. Harris was acquitted of selling Heroin on January 4th, but was convicted of selling Heroin on January 6th. Mr. Harris appealed his conviction, and a divided Appellate Court Division affirmed his conviction 3 – 2 noting that the Miranda violation was not clear cut and if the Trial court had actually held a hearing on the issue they would have decided differently. Mr. Harris appealed again to the New York Court of Appeals who denied his appeal per curium with several of the justices dissenting. Mr. Harris then filed a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court and was granted on one issue in mid-1970.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on December 17th, 1970. The sole issue at question was whether or not the use of the post arrest unmirandized statements for the purposes of impeachment was a violation of the 5th, 6th, and 14th amendment.
Mr. Harris argued that the protections guaranteed in the 5th and 6th amendment contained within the “Miranda Warning” demand that the state not be allowed to use any portion of a unmirandized statement.
The State argued that Miranda did indeed protect Mr. Harris from the use of his unmirandized statements in their case in chief. However, the State argued that they did not use the unmirandized statement against Mr. Harris as evidence, only as impeachment material that went to the issue of trustworthiness, not evidence. Further, the State argued that because the judge had given jury instruction indicating they were to disregard the statement for its evidence value, that was enough to protect the defendant’s rights.
The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on February 24rd 1971. In a 5 – 4 decision, the Majority led by Chief Justice Burger ruled that the use of a statement made in violation of Miranda could be used for impeachment purposes. The majority reasoned that so long as the evidence is not used in the State’s case in chief, and not used as evidence, then the use of the unmirandized statements would be constitutional. The Court held that a Defendant should not be allowed to use Miranda as a shield to commit perjury. The Court bolstered this reasoning with the observation that, if the statements Ms. Harris made had been told to a third party, the statements would have been admissible as impeachment evidence.
The dissenting justices lead by Justice Brennan warned that the majority’s holding would encourage police to not follow the law. Further, they argued that this effectively allows the prosecutor to use prohibited evidence if the Defendant took the stand.
With judgment rendered, Mr. Harris’s conviction was affirmed, and new exception to the general prohibition against the use of unmirandized statements was created. The rule of law is simple, Statements made in violation of Miranda cannot be used in the prosecutions case in chief. However, these statements may be used to impeach the defendant’s testimony. While this exception is relatively limited, it is significant as the first crack in the protections offered by the famous Miranda Warning. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can avoid being in a position in which the state can use otherwise inadmissible statements against you.
 Harris v. New York, 401 U.S. 222, 91 S. Ct. 643 (1971)
 Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602 (1966)