Police Must Give Miranda Warnings

People who watch police shows on television are familiar with the so-called "Miranda" warnings given to arrested suspects, but they may not realize that these warnings have not always been part of police practice. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court said, in essence, that, before interrogation can begin, a suspect must understand that he or she has certain constitutionally protected rights (listed below). This decision grew out of Miranda v. Arizona, a 1963 case challenging the conviction of Ernesto Miranda, who signed a confession following a two-hour interrogation without an attorney and without understanding his constitutional rights.

Q.: I recently heard the U.S. Supreme Court might "overrule" the so-called "Miranda" warnings police give to suspects telling them about their Constitutional rights. Is that true?

A.: Contrary to the predictions of many legal scholars, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision in Miranda v. Arizona in Dickerson v. United States. In this case, the Court recognized that "Miranda" warnings have become such a routine police practice that they have become part of our national culture.

Therefore, any statement given by a suspect during police questioning continues to depend on whether the police told the suspect that:

  1. the suspect has the right to remain silent;
  2. anything the suspect says can be used against him or her in a court of law;
  3. the suspect has the right to the presence of an attorney; and
  4. if the suspect cannot afford an attorney, he or she has the right to consult with a court-appointed attorney before answering any questions.

Q.: Does a suspect have to be at the police station before being warned about Miranda rights?

A.: Police officers are required to give suspects Miranda warnings only when the suspects are being formally arrested and questioned at the same time. At a "formal" arrest and questioning, a suspect is not free to leave, but is held in police custody, and questioning is done in such a way that a reasonable person would have no choice but to submit to the officer's will.

Police do not have to give Miranda warnings to a suspect who is being questioned informally and is not being held in police custody. For example, Miranda warnings are not triggered in the following situations:

Q.: If a suspect makes a statement that is not in answer to a direct question by police, is that suspect entitled to Miranda warnings?

A.: According to the U.S. Supreme Court, "custodial interrogation" is "questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court said that deciding whether a suspect has been "interrogated" depends upon whether the police have coerced or forced the suspect to speak.

However, police are not held accountable for "offhand remarks" that produce unexpected results. As long as the suspect isn't interrogated or coerced into speaking by some other method, any statement the suspect makes will be considered voluntary, even if it's an admission of guilt. Such a freely given statement can be used in court against the suspect.

Q.: What if a suspect gives up (or waives) the Miranda rights, not realizing what he or she is doing?

A.: A suspect who waives the Miranda rights must understand those rights and must not be forced into giving them up. To decide whether a suspect's waiver of Miranda rights is valid, courts study the facts and circumstances of the case, including the suspect's background, experience and conduct. Confessions that are not provided voluntarily by suspects cannot be used in court.

Q.: If a suspect decides to start talking to police officers and then changes his or her mind, what must that suspect do or say in order to halt the interrogation?

A.: A suspect must clearly declare that he or she no longer wishes to speak without an attorney present. Some courts have found that statements such as "maybe I should get a lawyer" are not usually enough to stop an interrogation. Nevertheless, most courts require that police officers must at least stop and clarify a suspect's intentions when the suspect responds in this fashion. It is always best to seek the advice of a qualified lawyer before being questioned by the police, regardless of your knowledge or involvement.

The information contained herein is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting with one of our attorneys.


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