Sometimes, police officers may want to question you before they arrest you. Such “voluntary” questioning can be problematic for a suspect because police do not need to give you a Miranda warning until arrest. However, the government will still use any incriminating statements made before arrest in court. The government does not have to provide an attorney for indigent individuals, and those that could afford an attorney might not realize they really should have one.
It’s a common misconception that anything said before a Miranda warning is inadmissible. For example, here in Utah, a friend of mine was with a group of people on a school playground late at night drinking alcohol. When someone spotted the police, everyone scattered. Some time later, an officer saw him on the street and asked him if he was among the people who had been drinking. My friend said that he was. When he represented himself in a Utah court, his admission was the key evidence against him. He tried to tell the judge that the officer never gave him a Miranda warning, but, of course, the judge didn’t care because he hadn’t been arrested when he said it. And my friend is the son of a (non-criminal) attorney.
It’s important that anyone detained by the police ask if they are free to leave. Police can only detain a suspect for a short time—not much more than the average traffic stop—before a judge will conclude that the suspect was in custody, and thus under arrest. When police officers say you are free to leave, you should take advantage of their offer. To circumvent Miranda, police will sometimes tell suspects that they are free to leave when they really aren’t. Judges are skeptical that questioning occurred under voluntary conditions, if, for example, the police arrest you immediately after you decide to leave. Courts examine whether the questioning constituted “custodial interrogation,” and the fact that someone was not formally arrested does not necessarily mean that police do not have to give Miranda warnings.
Suspects who haven’t been formally arrested need an attorney just as much as someone who has. As I previously mentioned, it is paramount that you speak to an attorney if you are in custody.