Natty Shafer Law

Utah lawyer for criminal and immigration cases

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Demystifying Miranda

There are many misconception about the Miranda warnings police officers are supposed to give suspects after an arrest. Television and movies have done a pretty good job of educating the public about what they say, but a pretty poor job of educating the public about when they are required and what happens if an officer doesn’t give a Miranda warning. Unfortunately, this means that the average person thinks they know exactly what the warnings require, but in all likelihood, they do not. Let’s take a look at each item, one at a time.

You’ve almost certainly heard the Miranda warnings at some point in your life. In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court laid out the information that a warning needs to contain: 1) a suspect has a right to remain silent; 2) that anything a suspect says can and will be used against them in court; 3) a suspect has the right to an attorney during questioning; and 4) if the suspect cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them. Police departments and individual officers can vary the wording a little, but that basic information must be conveyed, and the suspect has to understand the information. That’s simple enough and your average person knows this already.

It a bit more complicated to determine when they are required. Some people I’ve encountered believe they are required whenever someone is arrested and others believe the police have to give them whenever they want to question a suspect. Neither of those things are true. The truth is that the police must give Miranda warnings when they want to question a suspect they have already arrested. If no one is under arrest or the police have no intention of questioning anyone, then the warnings aren’t required.

Just to be clear, Miranda warnings are only required when a suspect has been arrested and the police want to question them.

The thorny issue is when someone is actually under arrest. Obviously, if the police handcuff you and tell you that you’re under arrest, then you’re under arrest. But sometimes courts will find that someone was under arrest even though the police had not formally arrested the suspect at the time. This is done to keep officers honest so they can’t interrogate a suspect they were going to arrest anyway. To determine this, the courts will look at many factors, such as whether a reasonable person would feel they could leave. That’s why it’s a good idea whenever a police officer is questioning you to ask if you are free to leave.

Finally, let’s discuss the remedy. Many people are also under the mistaken notion that if someone wasn’t read the Miranda rights, then the case will be dismissed. This almost never happens. Instead, statements made to the police after arrest but before a Miranda warning are inadmissible in court. Often a prosecutor will build a case without using the incriminating statements, or the prosecutor will move forward with a lesser charge.

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Police Interrogation Is Not for Amateurs

The Supreme Court once again narrowed the Miranda rule with a decision released on Tuesday. In Howes v. Fields, the Court ruled that prisoner Randall Fields did not have to be given Miranda warnings, even though he was in jail for disorderly conduct when the police started interrogating him about his involvement in a possible sex crime. The Court, strangely enough, concluded that this interrogation was voluntary, even though Mr. Fields did not consent to the interview, he was not told he could remain silent, and he was denied his evening medications.

The Court said that it was reasonable for Mr. Fields to believe he could end the interview because the police told him that he was free to go back to his cell, but, as Mr. Fields testified, he did not believe them. Since the interrogation was involuntary from the beginning, I tend to believe Mr. Fields as to whether or not he could have really ended the interrogation. Obviously, the Supreme Court disagrees with me.

This Court decision underlies how important it is to request a lawyer anytime a police officer questions you. If it takes a lawyer to figure out whether or not you are actually “in custody,” I have no idea how a layperson is going to know. Despite what police officers may tell you, their goal is to get a confession. They are not there to help you, and they will work hard to avoid giving you a Miranda warning.

I have previously mentioned that there are a few questions you need to answer if a Utah or Salt Lake City police officer questions you. You need to provide your name and possibly some identification. Otherwise, invoke your right to silence and request a Utah State licensed lawyer familiar with criminal laws before you answer anything.


Voluntary Police Questioning

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.