Miranda Rights

Anyone who has ever watched a television show or movie about American police officers is probably familiar with the warnings that officers must recite to criminal suspects when they place them under arrest. These warnings, known as Miranda warnings or Miranda rights, identify some of the basic constitutional rights protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. Failure to “Mirandize” a suspect could result in any statements that he or she makes during or after an arrest being ruled inadmissible in court. This includes statements or confessions made by a person during an interrogation in police custody.

Miranda v. Arizona

The name of the Miranda doctrine comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). The case involved a defendant who confessed to a crime after several hours of interrogation by police. At no time did the officers advise him of his right against self-incrimination or his right to consult with a lawyer. The court admitted the defendant’s written confession, over his objection, at trial, and he was convicted. The Supreme Court ruled that the coercive nature of the police’s custodial interrogation required them to advise the defendant of his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. It further ruled that an interrogation must cease if a suspect asserts the right to silence or to an attorney.

Police Custody

Police do not have a duty to read the Miranda warnings to a suspect until they take the person into custody for a formal interrogation or place him or her under arrest. If a person speaks to the police voluntarily, the point at which they are obligated to read the suspect the Miranda rights is not always clear. The Supreme Court dealt with this sort of situation in Salinas v. Texas, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), when a man spoke to investigators voluntarily and did not assert any of the Miranda rights. The court held that his non-verbal conduct was admissible as evidence of his guilt, since the police had not arrested him yet.

The Miranda Warnings

The specific warnings that police must give are listed by the court in the Miranda opinion at 384 U.S. at 444-45:

“He has a right to remain silent.”

This refers to the right to silence, or right against self-incrimination, found in the Fifth Amendment.

“Any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him.”

Statements made by a defendant outside of court, such as during a police interrogation, are not considered hearsay and are therefore admissible in court as evidence of guilt.

“He has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.”

A suspect has the right to an attorney of his or her choice during a police interrogation. Indigent suspects may be entitled to representation, at no expense to them, by a public defender or court-appointed attorney.

“The defendant may waive effectuation of these rights, provided the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently.”

Courts have generally held that a suspect must clearly invoke his or her Miranda rights in order to stop a police interrogation. The Supreme Court has held, for example, that statements made by a suspect after the reading of the Miranda rights are admissible in court if the suspect does not expressly state that he or she is exercising those rights. Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010).

The “Public Safety Exception”

The one generally accepted exception to the Miranda doctrine, known as the “public safety exception,” allows questioning of a suspect after arrest but before reading the Miranda rights if there is an immediate and significant danger to the public. New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 655-56 (1984). In the Quarles case, an officer discovered an empty gun holster after placing the suspect in handcuffs. The officer asked the suspect about the location of the gun, and the court held that his responses were admissible at trial. More recently, the public safety exception has featured prominently in terrorism investigations, including the arrest and interrogation of the Boston bombing suspect in 2013.