As a veteran criminal defense attorney in New Jersey, It is probably the most frequently asked question I get asked, and it is usually the first thing clients say when they sit down for a consult. “When I got arrested, the cop didn’t read me my rights, don’t they have to dismiss the charge”? The short and simple answer, is no. The longer and slightly more complex answer, is maybe. Miranda rights are some of the most important rights a criminal defendant has, so it is important to know them. So important, in fact, that Supreme Court of the United States has said in the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona, that a defendant who is under arrest and is going to be interrogated must be informed of these rights before any questioning can begin. So, what does that mean, what are Miranda rights, and what happens when a defendant isn’t read his rights?
The Court in Miranda, ruled that both inculpatory, and exclulpatory statements made in response to interrogation by a defendant in police custody will be admissible at trial only if the prosecution can show that the defendant was informed of the right to consult with an attorney before and during questioning, and of the right against self incrimination prior to questioning by police and that the defendant not only understood these rights, but voluntarily waived them. Simply put, if a person is in custody, the police must read you your rights before questioning you. Your rights include: the right to remain silent (because anything you say can, and will be used against you in a court of law), the right to consult with an attorney, and to have that attorney present during questioning, and if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Finally, the police must ask you if you understand these rights. For more on Miranda, click here.
So the police didn’t read you your rights… If the police question you and are seeking to use that statement in a prosecution against you, a defense attorney will file a motion to suppress your statement, barring its use in trial because it was obtained in violation of your Constitutional rights. If the police question you, you provide a statement, but the prosecutor is not attempting to use the statement against you, or if the police never question you, then no harm has been committed and your case will not be affected. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. Not all questioning looks like official interrogation, and whether a person was formally in custody or not, has been aggressively litigated. Sometimes police make statements to hide the fact that they are trying to provoke you into making “spontaneous” statements, which aren’t protected by Miranda. A quality defense attorney can spot this alternative form of “questioning” and will file a suppression motion. Sometimes questioning can be coercive, which forces someone to verbalize that they waiving, or giving up, their Miranda rights, but in reality, they aren’t doing so voluntarily. For example, threatening to arrest a family member if the defendant doesn’t talk, or threatening to hold the defendant in custody indefinitely, or not allowing them to use the restroom. These are coercive conditions designed to get around the protections of Miranda. Again, a quality criminal defense attorney will spot this, and file a suppression motion.
Without being coercive, police can be very persuasive in an arrest or interrogation situation, even though they have read you your Miranda rights. I know this, and I know it will feel uncomfortable. You will want to talk to them, believe it or not. The police do this for a living, and they are very good at getting people to talk, even after they have read the Miranda rights (think about how good car salesmen are. Next thing you know, you’re buying that car!). So, I give all my clients the same advice, and drill it into them until they really understand: Do not say a word, and do not consent to anything (especially a search of your person, your car, or your home – make them get a warrant!). Immediately… and I mean immediately, ask for a lawyer. Once you ask for a lawyer, the police must then cease all attempts to question you.