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Miranda Warnings and Police Questioning

Through pop culture, TV and movies, most Americans know that in some cases the police are obligated to "read you your rights". Most of us can recall at least the beginning of a typical Miranda warning as easily as recalling the pledge of allegiance. What most Americans don't know, however, is exactly what their Miranda rights are and when they apply.

In 2010, the US Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that modified the rules surrounding Miranda rights. These decisions have significantly affected the circumstances under which Miranda protections apply, so it's a good idea to reexamine the rules for Miranda warnings.

Your Miranda Rights

The Miranda warnings originated in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, which set forth the following warning and accompanying rights:

  • You have the right to remain silent;
  • Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law;
  • You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during the interrogation;
  • If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you;
  • You can invoke your right to be silent before or during an interrogation, and if you do so, the interrogation must stop.
  • You can invoke your right to have an attorney present, and until your attorney is present, the interrogation must stop.

Variations on Traditional Miranda Warnings

You might notice that the last two points from above are often omitted in pop culture references. In fact, many states have their own particular variation of Miranda requirements that their police officers must use, so the language differs slightly from one police department to another.

The most common addition to these core Miranda rights has been to end the traditional warning with a question along the lines of "do you understand these rights as they have been read to you". A suspect must affirmatively respond that they understand these rights - courts will not interpret silence as a sufficient acknowledgment of the Miranda warning.

The US Supreme Court firmly established this principle in a 2010 decision. In that case, a murder suspect refused to sign an acknowledgment of his Miranda rights, then later made statements that were used against him in his conviction for the crime.

The Court ruled that the burden was on the suspect to invoke his Miranda rights, and his failure to sign the acknowledgment essentially amounted to a waiver of those rights.

Miranda Warnings Don't Always Apply

There are two very basic prerequisites before the police must issue a Miranda warning to a suspect:

  • The suspect is in police custody
  • The suspect is under interrogation

It's crucial to understand these prerequisites because if you aren't formally in police custody, and you aren't being interrogated, the police don't have to give you a Miranda warning. This, in turn, means that the police can use anything you say until those two requirements are fulfilled as evidence against you.

Police Custody

"Police custody" is generally defined as anytime the police deprive you of your freedom of action in a significant way. Realistically though, it means being arrested. Some jurisdictions treat detentions differently than arrests, though, and a Miranda warning isn't required in such a situation.

Generally speaking, an actual arrest must take place before the police need to give you a Miranda warning. This means that simple things such as traffic stops or a police officer walking up to you and asking you questions are not considered police custody. When in doubt, just stay silent (except for the exception about identification discussed below).

Police Interrogation

Finally it's worth noting that the warning must come before you are being interrogated, so until the interrogation has begun, you are not necessarily owed a Miranda warning. A request for identification is generally not considered an interrogation, nor have the police placed you into custody simply by asking about your identity. In general, you must always give a police officer identification.

Once police officers begin asking questions that may implicate involvement in a crime, however, an interrogation has begun.

In another 2010 case, the US Supreme Court refined the rules for police interrogations. In that case, the Court ruled that police officers could initiate a second interrogation of a suspect who had previously invoked his Miranda right to remain silent once two weeks had elapsed from the date of the original interrogation. The police did not have to give the suspect another Miranda warning, according to the Supreme Court. The Court decided that the Miranda warning from the previous interrogation remained in effect, thus the statements the suspect gave during the second interrogation constituted a waiver of his right to silence.

Failing to Provide a Miranda Warning

If the police fail to make you aware of your Miranda rights, nothing said in response to a custodial interrogation can be used against you. In addition, any evidence that is derived from that improper custodial interrogation is also inadmissible.

For instance, if the police fail to make you aware of your Miranda rights and questioning you leads them to a murder weapon, that weapon and the contents of that interrogation are both inadmissible unless they can show that they would have found the weapon without your statements.

Physical and Psychological Intimidation

Information that you voluntarily offer to a police officer after receiving a proper Miranda warning is generally admissible in court. Police officers are not allowed to use physical or psychological intimidation to get you to make a statement, however. TV favorites such as hours spent under a bright light or sleep deprivation render the statement involuntary, and not admissible in court.

What to Say and Not Say If You Are Arrested

People often blurt out admissions in the heat of the moment or let the police bait them into admissions. The best advice if you are arrested is quite simple: Be cooperative, be polite, provide identification, but say nothing other than to request a lawyer.

Next Steps
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