If you’ve ever watched TV, you’ve probably heard Miranda warnings being given numerous times. In fact, due to the popularity of cop shows, a huge portion of the population has the Miranda warnings memorized. Below is an explanation of what the Miranda warnings actually mean.

You have the right to remain silent.

In the famous case of Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment protects any person from being forced to testify against himself. Therefore, if you exercise your right to remain silent, the police cannot ask you anything other than basic biographical information to determine who you are and health related questions if you are being taken into custody. To exercise this right, you must explicitly state that you are exercising your right to remain silent. Simply remaining silent is not enough. Once you do so, police cannot continue questioning you in connection with any alleged crime.

Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.

The word anything should be taken quite literally. The goal of an initial interrogation is often not to get a confession, but rather to get a suspect to say something that will later exclude possible defenses. This is often presented as trying to get the suspect’s side of the story. For example, a police officer might encourage a suspect to explain how they shot someone in self defense because this later prevents the suspect from saying they weren’t the shooter. With that in mind, it’s almost always a better strategy to not talk to a police officer no matter how friendly or on your side they try to seem.

You have the right to an attorney.

You have an absolute right to speak with an attorney before and while being questioned by the police. If you ask for an attorney, the police cannot continue questioning you until you have had the opportunity to speak to one. This request must be unequivocally stated for your right to be upheld. For example, “I want to speak with my lawyer,” not, “I think I might need a lawyer.” This right does not mean that you have a right to an attorney on the spot, but only that the police must stop questioning you at that time. As a practical matter, you will likely be detained for several hours or even charged without being questioned further before you are able to speak to an attorney.

If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.

If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one for you. Because the court, and not the police, appoints attorneys, you will not be appointed an attorney until you appear in court. This means that you need to be charged with a crime before an attorney will be appointed for you. It is still usually best to not talk to the police because they will not have your statements to support any charges against you, and this lack of evidence may help your appointed attorney to quickly seek a dismissal of the charges against you.

Consequences of An Officer’s Failure to Give Miranda Warnings

If an officer fails to give you Miranda warnings or continues to question you after you’ve exercised your right to remain silent or have an attorney present, the prosecution won’t be able to use any incriminating statements you made after you exercised those rights — in other words, those statements will likely be suppressed. In addition, any evidence that the police locates based on those suppressed statements will also likewise be suppressed as “fruits of the poisonous tree.”

Custodial Interrogation

An important aspect to keep in mind is that the Miranda warnings are only required for questioning that take place after the suspect has been placed into custody. To determine whether a person is in custody so as to require Miranda Warnings, the ultimate inquiry is whether there is either a formal arrest or “restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest.” New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 655 (1984).

The place where the interrogation takes place is not always the determinative factor. In other words, a person questioned at a police station may not be considered in custody, while a person questioned outside of the police station (even his home) may be considered to be in custody.

In Orozco v. Texas, 394 U.S. 324 (1969), for instance, the suspect was questioned by 4 police officers in his bedroom at 4 a.m. about a gun used in a recent murder. The Court held that the suspect was in custody and that the officers were required to read him the Miranda warnings before the interrogation. The Court, emphasizing the police officers’ testimony at the pretrial proceedings that Orozco would not have been free to leave had he made the attempt to do so, determined that there was “potentiality for compulsion” equivalent to a police station interrogation.

In Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492 (1977), on the other hand, the defendant (a parolee) came to the police station after a telephone request of a police officer. Upon his arrival at the station, defendant was informed that he was not under arrest before he was questioned about a burglary. Defendant confessed to the crime and was released pending review of his case. After his conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Miranda warnings were not required in this situation even though the Defendant was questioned at the police station. The Court reasoned that Defendant had come to the station voluntarily, was informed that he was not under arrest, and had not been restricted in him freedom to depart.

In sum, for a suspect to be in custody requires a formal arrest or circumstances under which a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have believed himself in custody or deprived of his freedom in significant way.

NOTE: The “reasonable person” test is an objective and not a subjective test. This was emphasized by the Supreme Court in Stansburry v. California, 511 U.S. 318 (1994), stating that the subjective view harbored by the police officer or the suspect had no place in the analysis of custody.