ISTOCK IMAGE ID 21478630Whether it was on a TV show or out in public, most people have heard the Miranda Warning: “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 an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

But what does this “warning” really mean? Believe it or not, it contains some of your most important and fundamental rights as a U.S. citizen. The Miranda Warning and the rights associated with it come from the U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona. In the case, Ernesto Miranda, a Mexican immigrant, confessed to kidnapping and rape after being questioned by police for two hours. Miranda was not informed of his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination or his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney, and his confession was used against him in court, leading to a sentence of 20-30 years in prison.

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Miranda’s confession could not be used in court because he was unaware of the protection against self-incrimination provided by the Constitution. This landmark case allowed the Supreme Court to determine the role that police have in protecting the rights of the accused, and it gave rise to the Miranda Warning, now used by all law enforcement agencies in the U.S. (in some form).

What Miranda Rights Do For You

After you are arrested, but before questioning you, a police officer must inform you that:

 

  • You have the right to remain silent. You are not required to speak to police whatsoever, either before or after being arrested. The police cannot (lawfully) punish you for refusing to talk to them.
  • If you choose to say anything, it can be used against you in a court of law.

    If you waive your Fifth Amendment right to silence, understand that anything you say to the officer can be used as evidence against you.

  • You have the right to have a lawyer present during questioning. The Sixth Amendment gives you the right to legal representation during interrogation.

  • If you cannot afford a lawyer and want to have one, one will be appointed for you. Not being able to afford an attorney should not stop you from seeking legal representation, and the officer must inform you of such.

Your Miranda rights apply to any questioning by the police once you are in custody—however, this does not necessarily mean at the police station or in jail. If you have been deprived of your freedom in any significant way (e.g. placed in handcuffs, put in the back of a police car, or otherwise prevented from leaving by an officer), your Miranda rights protect you. In other words, if the officer has made it clear that you are not free to go and starts asking questions, your Miranda rights apply.

If you are taken into police custody and questioned without being read your Miranda Warning, any confession or evidence given cannot be used in court. In other words, if you are questioned without being informed of your right to be silent and/or have a lawyer present, any self-incriminating information given is not legally valid. (However, there are always exceptions. It is important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney if you have questions about your arrest and the Miranda Warning.)

What Miranda Rights Don’t Do For You

If you are arrested and the officer does not read your Miranda rights, it does not mean you’re totally off the hook. It simply means that the information you provided during interrogation can be challenged in court by your attorney. If the police have other evidence (i.e. video footage of you committing a crime or statements from witnesses), they can still proceed with the case.

It is also important to note that your Miranda rights apply even before you are arrested—but until you are deprived of your freedom in some way by police, they don’t have to read you your Miranda Warning. Whether or not you have been detained, you do not have to respond to police questions, and a police officer cannot arrest you for simply failing to respond. You may be required to present information, such as an ID, but they cannot force you to respond to their questions, either before or after arrest.

Keep in mind that any incriminating statements you make before you are arrested (i.e. when the officers have made it clear that you are “free to go”) can be used in court. For that reason, an officer may tell you that you are free to go and begin asking questions, hoping that you will answer and incriminate yourself before he or she is legally required to read your Miranda rights.