Falling through the cracks: Failing to identify compromised Miranda abilities for defendants with limited cognitive capacities

Behav Sci Law. 2023 Sep-Oct;41(5):326-342. doi: 10.1002/bsl.2610. Epub 2023 Mar 2.


Custodial suspects must be informed of their Miranda rights (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966) prior to police questioning. Since this landmark decision, scholars have rigorously studied Miranda comprehension and reasoning among vulnerable groups including those with intellectual disabilities (ID). However, the focus on ID has left arrestees with limited cognitive capacities (i.e., LCCs with IQs between 70 and 85) entirely overlooked. The current dataset addressed this oversight using a large (N = 820) sample of pretrial defendants who had completed the Standardized Assessment of Miranda Abilities (SAMA). Traditional (i.e., ID and no-ID) criterion groups were first analyzed with the standard error of measurement (SEM) removed. Second, a nuanced three-group framework included defendants with LCCs. Results indicate that LCC defendants are vulnerable to impaired Miranda comprehension (i.e., limited recall of the Miranda warning and deficits in Miranda-related vocabulary knowledge). Not surprisingly, their waiver decisions were often impaired by crucial misconceptions (e.g., seeing the investigating officers as beneficently on their side). The practical implications of these findings were underscored with respect to Constitutional safeguards for this critically important group, who have appeared to fall through the cracks in the criminal justice system.

Keywords: Miranda comprehension; Miranda reasoning; Miranda rights; forensic assessment; intellectual disability; intelligence; limited cognitive capacities; standardized assessment of Miranda abilities.

MeSH terms

  • Civil Rights / psychology
  • Comprehension
  • Criminal Law
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability*
  • Law Enforcement
  • Mental Recall
  • Prisoners* / psychology

Supplementary concepts

  • Lethal congenital contracture syndrome 1