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When Miranda Warnings Are Required

Most Americans probably recognize the Miranda warnings when they hear them: “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney, and if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you.” These well-worn turns of phrase are now taken for granted as an integral part of any arrest, and many would claim to “know their rights” simply because they can rattle off the list of Miranda warnings. But when are Miranda warnings really a requirement, and what rights do the warnings protect?

Miranda warnings have the specific purpose of protecting the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court sought to prevent coerced or involuntary confessions by requiring police to inform suspects of their rights prior to questioning. Coercing suspects into giving information can warp the truth, making these confessions unreliable. As such, the Supreme Court decreed that any statement that is not voluntarily given is inadmissible as evidence in a criminal proceeding.

The Miranda requirement applies only during a custodial interrogation and not to the arrest process itself. The Supreme Court held that a custodial interrogation exists when a person is “first subjected to police interrogation while in custody at the station or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” Not all conversations protected by Miranda take place at the police station, and it’s not always obvious that a suspect is in custody. To make that determination, a court would ask how a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood the situation. For example, when and where did the interrogation take place? For how long? How many people were present? Was the suspect physically restrained? Was someone blocking the exit?

The definition of interrogation is not limited to express questioning, but can also apply to any words or actions on the part of the police that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. For example, having a conversation within earshot of a suspect with the intent of frightening the suspect into divulging information might be considered an interrogation even if the police never asked the suspect a question.

A suspect can assert his or her Fifth Amendment rights at any point during an interrogation. If a suspect in custody indicates that he or she would like an attorney present or would like to remain silent, then the questioning must cease immediately. Any information obtained after a suspect has asserted these rights will not be admissible in court.

Just as people can choose to assert their rights at any time, they can also waive their Fifth Amendment rights and talk to the police. An explicit oral or written waiver is not always necessary, but simply talking to the police after the warnings are given does not, in and of itself, constitute a waiver. A suspect can always change his or her mind; the right can also be reasserted at any point during a custodial interrogation.

Failing to “Mirandize” a suspect properly does not have the far-reaching effect one might expect. If the police fail to give Miranda warnings prior to a custodial interrogation, then any information obtained during that interrogation will not be admissible in court. This does not mean that the arrest was illegal, or that law enforcement cannot obtain evidence in another way.

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