We’ve all seen plenty of legal TV shows and movies that depict the “Miranda warnings” that are read after someone is arrested by the police on suspicion of a crime. You probably even have most of them memorized. (Hint: The first one is “you have the right to remain silent.”) The warnings set out in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 467-73 (1966) protect a person’s constitutional rights against self-incrimination during a custodial interrogation. But many people incorrectly believe that if an officer doesn’t read you the Miranda warnings the second he puts the cuffs on you, your case will later be dismissed. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. An officer doesn’t need to read you the Miranda warnings until you are both in custody and being questioned by the police with the intention that your answers will be used against you at trial. Much of the distinction about when an officer needs to read Miranda comes down to a.) What type of encounter you are having with the police and b.) What type of information they are asking you.
There are three different types of police encounters with citizens: 1.) A consensual encounter, 2.) An investigative detention, and 3.) An arrest. If an officer is simply speaking with a member of the public during a consensual encounter about a matter (and any reasonable person would conclude that they were free to go at any time) that person can end the encounter and choose to leave without answering questions, and thus are not considered to be in custody. If you are not considered to be in police custody, the Miranda warnings are actually not required. This means that anything you say to the officer during that polite little conversation on the street can be used at trial against you if you are later charged with a crime.
By contrast, if a person is being detained or is under arrest, they are not free to go when they please. In a detention, an officer has determined that he has, at the very least, a “reasonable suspicion” that you are in involved in some sort of crime and has the authority to keep you detained until his investigation of the matter is complete. In an arrest, an officer has determined that he has “probable cause” that you have committed a crime, meaning that he believes it is more likely than not that you committed that crime. It is with these two types of encounters that Miranda warnings need to be given if an officer intends to question you, and failure to do so can result in your statements themselves being inadmissible at trial. Keep in mind, often times this means your case can still move forward, just without the suppressed statements. But if the only evidence the prosecution has are the illegally obtained statements,the case will likely be dismissed.
Please note: if you’re being detained or are under arrest and you randomly blurt out a statement to an officer before he has the opportunity to give you the Miranda warnings and ask you questions, that statement is considered completely voluntary and is 100% admissible against you. This is called a “res gestae” statement. Further, if an officer is simply asking you identifying information such as your date of birth or address, those types of questions do not require a Miranda warning. It is only when you are in custody and are being asked questions that can be used against you at trial (also called “testimonial questions”) does Miranda really matter.
Questions while in custody regarding where you were, who were you with, or what you were doing are definitely testimonial questions that require Miranda protection. As covered in a previous blog post, a skilled criminal defense attorney will be able to analyze your case and determine if there are any Miranda violations that warrant a Motion to Suppress which may keep a key statement (even a confession) from being admitted, and may result in your case getting dismissed.