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Of Meese and Miranda

`YOU are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent....'' Most of the generation that has grown up on television police dramas probably know the ``Miranda rights'' formula by heart.

Twenty years after the case of Miranda v. Arizona, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that criminal suspects being interrogated in police custody must be told of their constitutional protection against self-incrimination, Miranda rights have become part of the law-enforcement landscape. Police officers have, by and large, learned to rattle them off at the moment of arrest, sometimes with reference to wallet-size ``cue cards'' they carry in their pockets.

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But now Attorney General Edwin Meese has announced his plan to seek an overturning of the Miranda decision, as soon as the ``right'' test case can be found.

This would be a mistake.

Is it really the prerogative of an attorney general to lobby to change Supreme Court decisions, rather than let public issues rise through the judicial process? Mr. Meese had done that in the abortion issue. Now he is trying it in the area of criminal evidence. For ideological and political reasons, the Justice Department is injecting itself into the legal process by grabbing hold of cases, and now inviting cases on subjects it wants to pursue.

Many of the allegations that the Miranda ruling has hamstrung law enforcement seem to come from organizations of police officers, with whom Mr. Meese strongly identifies. Good police work is not, however, necessarily the same thing as good jurisprudence.

Miranda rights are a symbolic, and in some cases much more than symbolic, statement of the worth the nation ascribes to the individual, even when that individual may be thought to have been involved in a crime. The Miranda decision may on occasion let a criminal off the hook; so do the Fourth Amendment protections against ``unreasonable searches'' and other constitutional expressions of the presumption of innocence, right to legal counsel, and protection against self-incrimination. But the public good is better served by maintaining a broad set of civil liberties guarantees for everyone than it would be by abrogating those guarantees to prosecute an individual.

The test of American justice cannot be how it treats those who can afford high-powered legal counsel to get them out of trouble. The test is how it treats an innocent suspect who happens to be in the wrong place when the police are eager to make an arrest and ``clear'' a case.

The Miranda ruling is coming under attack partly because many people feel crime is not being subdued by current law enforcement efforts. The fault lies not in the ruling, however. The social, personal, economic causes of crime are more complex than that.

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The ruling should not be subjected to an unnecessary Justice Department test.

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