What Are Miranda Rights and When Must They Be Read?

When the police detain someone, they must give “Miranda warnings” before questioning begins to inform the person of the right to remain silent and right to have an attorney present.

What Are Miranda Rights?

Miranda warnings inform people of their constitutional rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer present during police questioning. Police read Miranda rights after detaining someone but before beginning an interrogation (questioning).

Police must inform arrestees of the following:

  • You have the right to remain silent.
  • If you do say anything, what you say can be used against you in a court of law.
  • You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during any questioning.
  • If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you if you so desire.

The police don’t have to say the warnings in that exact way or order. They just need to convey these rights to an accused person.

Why Do We Have Miranda Rights?

The rights included in the Miranda warnings come from the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment contains the right against self-incrimination, and the Sixth Amendment contains the right to counsel. The name Miranda comes from a 1966 Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436.

Miranda v. Arizona
Police arrested Ernesto Miranda in connection with a kidnapping and rape. After the police questioned him for two hours, Miranda signed a confession. The prosecution used his confession as evidence at his trial, and Miranda was convicted. His appeal of the conviction went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court found that Miranda’s confession should not have been used as evidence because the police had not informed him of his rights to remain silent and have an attorney present during interrogation. Even though no evidence suggested that the police used harsh interrogation methods, the Court emphasized that any confession must be “truly the product of free choice.” To that end, the Court outlined the Miranda warnings.

When Do Police Have to Read You Your Rights?

Miranda applies only to custodial interrogations, which means the police don’t have to give Miranda warnings every time they question or talk to someone. Miranda rights come into play when the police arrest or detain someone. Detention here means that the person reasonably believes he or she is not free to leave. It doesn’t matter where the questioning happens—at the police station, the scene of the crime, or a busy public place. What matters is that the person is in custody and cannot leave.

For instance, say Melody encounters the police at a house that has been set on fire. The police begin to question her about what she saw. Because they’re questioning her as a witness and have not restrained her movement in any way, they’re not required to give her Miranda warnings. However, during the questioning, Melody mentions a detail that the police don’t believe she could have known without being involved in the fire. They then arrest her on suspicion of arson and inform her of her Miranda rights. The police can use as evidence anything she said before they gave her the Miranda warning and anything she chose to say after.

How Do You Invoke or Waive Your Miranda Rights?

To invoke your Miranda rights (even the right to remain silent), you must say something to police that indicates you are choosing to remain silent and want the interrogation to end or that you want an attorney. Staying quiet in the face of the questioning is not enough to invoke Miranda or to make the interrogation stop. Conversely, if a person answers questions after being given Miranda warnings, courts consider the person to have knowingly waived his or her Miranda rights.

Invoking Miranda rights isn’t a onetime deal. A person may invoke Miranda rights at any time during the interrogation, even after answering some questions. Upon invoking Miranda, the interrogation must end.

Let’s say the police arrested Joe on suspicion of burglary and read him his Miranda rights. Joe continues to answer questions about an associate, Charlie. After thirty minutes of questioning, Joe realizes that he might be incriminating himself, along with Charlie, so he asks for an attorney. The interrogation must stop until Joe has consulted with an attorney.

What Happens If the Police Don’t Give Me a Miranda Warning?

Voluntary statements made after an arrest but before questioning and giving Miranda warnings are still admissible as evidence. If the police arrest Charlie on suspicion of burglary and while transporting him to the station for questioning he shouts out, “Joe has my burglary tools!”—this statement can be used against him because he said it voluntarily before questioning had begun.

Once questioning begins, if the police fail to advise a person of their Miranda rights, the person’s statements cannot be used at trial. Failure to give a Miranda warning doesn't mean all charges will be dropped. Instead, the prosecution cannot use evidence obtained in violation of the Miranda rule at trial to prove the person’s guilt. (The statements, however, can be used to contradict testimony given by the defendant at trial and sometimes at sentencing.)

Ask for a Lawyer

If you’ve been arrested and face interrogation by the police, it’s important to ask for a lawyer before answering any questions. An experienced defense attorney can help you understand the charges and advise you during police questioning so that your rights are protected.

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