As a criminal defense lawyer, I often get questions about when the police are required to read a suspect their “Miranda” rights and what it means for their case if they don’t read them those rights. If you have tuned into one of the many crime/cop drama shows on TV today, you’ve surely heard those famous lines uttered by the officer as the suspect is taken into custody: “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 speak to an attorney and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.” Maybe the most common misconception a criminal defense lawyer deals with is that if the police don’t read you those magic lines, your case will be dismissed. While it is true that the failure to read a suspect their Miranda rights may lead to a successful motion to suppress a confession, there are many limitations to the rule. It is also true that a confession or admission is often the most damaging piece of evidence the government has in a criminal case so understanding the rules relating to the admissibility of confessions is vitally important.
To understand how these rights became so ingrained in our system of criminal justice and what it means if the police fail to advise you of those rights, you must first know a little bit about Ernesto Miranda and the events of March 2nd, 1963.
By the age 23, Ernesto Miranda had already compiled a lengthy criminal record. Convictions for burglary, attempted rape, assault and armed robbery led to several periods of incarceration. A short stint in the U.S. Army ended with a dishonorable discharge. But it was what happened during the early morning hours of March 2, 1963, that would eventually lead to Miranda becoming a household name and change the way crimes are investigated in this country. On that night, an 18 year old girl was on her way home from a movie near Phoenix when she was dragged into a car, tied up and raped. Police investigating the case eventually traced the car used during the attack to Miranda’s common-law spouse. Although the victim was unable to positively identify her attacker, police took Miranda into custody and began to question him about the crime.
A two hour interrogation followed after which Miranda admitted to the rape and kidnapping and even identified his victim. Miranda went on to give a written statement with his confession. The written confession contained a typed statement which indicated that Miranda was making the statement with “full knowledge of my legal rights” and that he was aware the statement could be used against him. The statement did not, however, contain any advisement that Miranda had the right to talk to a lawyer before making any statement. This was not surprising since at the time, no such requirement existed in any case law or statute. Based largely on this confession, Miranda was arrested and charged with kidnapping and rape.
At trial, Miranda’s criminal defense lawyer cross-examined one of the officers that interrogated Miranda and, seemingly as an afterthought, asked if the officer had advised the suspect of the right to have an attorney present during the questioning. The officer confirmed that he had not and the lawyer made a motion to exclude the confession which was promptly denied. Five hours after closing arguments, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict on both counts. As we now know, in 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and reversed the conviction, holding that Miranda’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was violated. In the opinion, the Court spelled out the now-famous rights and the procedures for police to follow in all custodial interrogations.
As you would expect for perhaps the most cited of all criminal law cases, the Miranda decision has been interpreted and applied to thousands of situations and cases. A thorough consideration of these cases is beyond this article but two key points are worth noting. The first is the custodial requirement of Miranda. To trigger the requirement to give any rights advisement, the suspect must be in custody. A suspect is generally considered to be in custody when he or she is not free to leave. Obviously this is a fact-specific decision but consider the example of a police officer responding to the scene of a domestic disturbance. Imagine the officer is standing on the lawn talking with one of the parties to the incident and the party makes an incriminating statement. A court would most likely find that that individual was not in custody and therefore there was no requirement to give any Miranda advisement.
The second key point to remember is that Miranda only applies to police interrogations. It does not apply to spontaneous statements made to police not in response to any questioning. It also does not apply to routine booking questions or to other evidence considered non-testimonial in nature such as fingerprints, blood or breath sampling or handwriting examples.
If you are wondering what became of Mr. Miranda, sadly for him things did not end with a triumphant walk out of jail to freedom. Although the Court reversed his conviction, the case was sent back for a re-trial, this time without the confession. At the re-trial, Miranda’s common-law spouse came forward and testified against him. He was again convicted and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. He was released on parole in 1975. Not long after his release, Miranda was stabbed to death in a fight during a card game in a Phoenix bar. When the police arrested a suspect in the killing, they read him his rights off a preprinted card with the heading: “Miranda Rights.”