Miranda Rights: The Who, What, Where, When and Why

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law ..." And, so begins many police dramas and legal novels. Some fans of police dramas believe that a police officer needs to provide every person whom they stop or with whom they speak their Miranda rights. However, that is not accurate. The Supreme Court has explained who needs to be informed of these rights and when.

What are the Miranda Rights?

While, Miranda rights are named for the famous Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona, the rights do not have their origin in that case. Rather, the rights that we refer to as the Miranda rights are constitutional rights which the court, in Miranda v. Arizona, decided needed to be provided to certain people in police custody.

The specific constitutional rights that are commonly referred to as the Miranda rights include the right to remain silent, the right against self incrimination and the right to an attorney during questioning and in court. While many jurisdictions require their law enforcement officers to use particular wording, the Court did not require all jurisdictions to adopt the same wording when providing suspects with their constitutional rights. Instead, the court required that the warnings contain at least the same level of information as it set out in its ruling and that the warnings be meaningful for the suspects. Therefore, suspects are asked if they understand their rights and are required to say yes before an officer can begin questioning.

Some jurisdictions add additional warnings to the typical Miranda warnings that they think are important for the people in their communities. For example, some border states require officers to tell suspects that if they are not U.S. citizens that they have the right to contact their country’s consulate prior to questioning.

Who Needs to Hear the Miranda Rights and When

The Miranda rights need to be spoken by a law enforcement official to an individual who is a criminal suspect and in police custody before they begin to question the individual about the circumstances surrounding the crime. A person is considered to be in police custody if a reasonable person would believe that his or her freedom to leave the situation is restrained, regardless of whether the police have formerly arrested the person.

However, in 2004, the Supreme Court did uphold state “stop and identify” laws which allow police to ask biographical information of a person without first providing the person with his or her Miranda rights.

Why are These Rights Important?

In order for incriminating evidence to be admissible at trial, the police need to provide the suspect with his or her Miranda warnings prior to obtaining the evidence.   The Supreme Court found that police officers need to provide suspects with their Miranda rights in order to safeguard a person’s right not to self incriminate. That is why a suspect who is in police custody must be informed of his or her rights prior to any police questioning. If a person is arrested and the police do not intend to question the person then the Miranda rights do not have to be provided.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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