Civil Rights Law

What Is a Miranda Warning?

The name “Miranda” might not ring any bells, but chances are you’ve probably heard the most famous words of any police-based TV show, once the bad guy is placed in handcuffs: “You have the right to remain silent…”

Suspects in a criminal investigation are entitled to certain protections under the Constitution, and a 1972 Supreme Court case called Miranda v. Arizona dictated what law enforcement personnel must do to advise people of those rights. This article is a quick primer on your rights during a criminal investigation and when you must receive a Miranda warning.

What Are Your Specific Rights Under Miranda?

While some jurisdictions may differ on the exact wording, a Miranda warning will generally sound something like this:

  • 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 an attorney and to have an attorney present during any questioning.
  • If you cannot afford an attorney, one can be appointed for you.

The Miranda warning stems from the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment states, “No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” which is a long-winded way of saying you do not have to talk to the police if you don’t want to. This is why the first two provisions of the Miranda warning say you have the right to remain silent, but if you choose to talk, prosecutors can use your statements as evidence during a criminal trial.

Likewise, the Sixth Amendment states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Courts have determined that police interrogations are “critical stages” of criminal proceedings, and therefore you have a right to have a lawyer present if police want to question you.

In fact, interrogations are so crucial to criminal prosecutions that people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer must still have access to one if they request it. This is why the third and fourth provisions exist in the warning, to advise you of your right to an attorney and the state’s obligation to appoint one if you cannot afford one.

When Do the Police Need to Give You a Miranda Warning?

While all these rights are important — and you may invoke them at any time — the police are not required to give you a Miranda warning any time they want to talk to you. You may have noticed they don’t recite the entire thing if you’ve been pulled over for a traffic violation.

Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Miranda case, the warnings are only mandatory prior to or during “custodial interrogations.” Custody means you are under arrest or police are holding you for questioning. For example, police confining you to a locked room or vehicle with officers may require a Miranda warning. Interrogation means direct questioning or non-verbal actions through which police try to gain a confession or useful evidence.

And both conditions need to be present at the same time. So, officers do not have to give you a Miranda warning if they are simply arresting you or serving a search warrant. Additionally, police don’t need to “Mirandize” you if they are talking to you in your own home, on a public street, or in any setting in which you are free to leave or end the interaction. You must be both in custody and subject to interrogation to be entitled to Miranda warnings.

How Do You Invoke Your Rights Under Miranda?

Unfortunately, your Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights are not automatically enforced just because police have read you the required Miranda warnings. And you cannot expect police to assume that you want to invoke them. Courts have ruled that you must explicitly assert your rights to remain silent and to talk to an attorney.

That means you must affirmatively state during or before an interrogation begins that you don’t want to talk to officers and would like to consult with a lawyer for those protections to apply. Once you do, the interrogation must stop. But simply staying silent will not end questioning, and if you say something later without invoking your rights, it could be used against you.

The best way to enforce your legal rights during a criminal investigation is to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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