Your Miranda rights: defined

By A.J. Wagner

Ernesto Miranda, whose wrongful conviction led to Miranda v. Arizona.  reproduction courtesy of the arizona department of corrections.

Ernesto Miranda, whose wrongful conviction led to Miranda v. Arizona. Reproduction courtesy of the Arizona Department of Corrections.

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you.

These are likely the most famous words in American law. These words have been a part in the script of thousands of movies and TV shows for decades. They are also the words every police officer knows and says upon the arrest of an individual for a crime.

Since the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona these words have been a part of our culture signifying the importance we as Americans place upon our Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowed that a Constitutional right isn’t much of a right if an arrested individual doesn’t know that the right exists. Thus, the court required that a defendant must have been informed of these important rights if the state wants to use a defendant’s statements in a trial.

Of course, few things in the law are clear-cut. So, despite the requirement for Miranda warnings, they are not needed in every case.

In fact, the warnings are not required until the person is arrested. “Arrested” is often a term of art. For instance, just because someone is pulled over by a police officer does not mean they are under arrest. Anything said to an officer during that initial conversation can be used later in the court even if Miranda warnings weren’t given.

By way of example on this point, I was in a pretrial in Lebanon, Ohio one Monday morning when a state trooper came in and told me how over the weekend he had stopped a young man for speeding. The trooper approached the speedster’s car and asked, “You know why I pulled you over?” The unthinking reply came, “You mean that rape back there?” The trooper went back to his cruiser and radioed a query as to any report of a rape. The report had just come in. No Miranda warnings had been given, but the young man’s statement was able to be used in court because he was not under arrest.

Likewise, just because a person is asked to “come downtown” and is in an interrogation room does not mean that person is under arrest. Anything said during this kind of investigation is fair game to use in the court later. It is not until a person is “in custody” and is no longer free to leave that an arrest will become effectuated and the rights become important.

Even after the arrest they may not be all that important if the police have enough evidence to convict without the use of the statements. In the original case where the Supreme Court ruled that Ernesto Arturo Miranda’s statements could not be used against him, he was retried for rape and kidnapping and was still found guilty.

Miranda warnings are also not needed if the police aren’t asking questions and a defendant gives voluntary statements. See the example above. Even after an arrest suspects sometimes blurt out information when they aren’t being asked questions. Those statements can be used at trial. Miranda only matters if the police are conducting a substantive interrogation – something beyond name, address and “Do you need a drink of water?”

In truth, the Miranda warnings do not tell a suspect all of the rights available. A suspect can stop an interrogation at any point in time by clearly stating that he does not want to talk anymore or by clearly asking for an attorney to be present. According to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2010 case of Berguis v. Thompkins, a request to invoke the rights stated in the Miranda warning must be explicit. The suspect is never told that. If a suspect, after hearing the Miranda warnings says, “Maybe I should get a lawyer,” his “maybe” will not necessarily stop the interrogation.

Police also have to watch for some traps when administering the Miranda warnings. When the warnings are given, they must be understood. So if the warnings are given to a person who is too intoxicated, too mentally impaired or too intellectually impaired to understand the warnings, the warnings will not be effective.

If a suspect stops an interrogation and then wants to talk again, the police will generally have to re-warn.

As a judge I once heard a challenge to a Miranda warning where the defendant claimed he did not understand the warnings because he was too slow. The attorneys for each side called psychologists who administered a specific test designed to determine a person’s understanding of the words used in the Miranda warnings.

So what should you do if you get arrested? Well, you’ve been warned.


Disclaimer: The content herein is for entertainment and information only. Do not use this as a legal consultation. Every situation has different nuances that can affect the outcome and laws change without notice. If you’re in a situation that calls for legal advice, get a lawyer. You represent yourself at your own risk. The author, the Dayton City Paper and its affiliates shall have no liability stemming from your use of the information contained herein.

A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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A.J. Wagner is an attorney with the law firm of Flanagan, Lieberman, Hoffman and Swaim at 15 W. Fourth Street in Dayton. A.J. and his firm would be glad to help you with all of your legal needs. You can reach A.J. at (937) 223-5200 or at AJWagner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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