By: Hugh Duvall
Sometime between the television series Adam-12 and CHiPS, a grave misconception spread across our land. A surprisingly large number of American citizens came to believe that if a police officer does not read a suspect his “rights” upon arrest, a judge will “throw the case out of court.”
As a criminal-defense attorney, I face the task of correcting this misconception on a fairly regular basis. The scene usually begins with the client exclaiming, “But he didn’t read me my rights!” Whereupon I explain that the officer’s failure to comply with that requirement does not necessarily benefit the defense.
These “rights” are, of course, a set of rights guaranteed to us under the U.S. Constitution. We have all heard them rattled off hundreds, if not thousands, of times. They include the right to remain silent, to have an attorney present during any questioning or a court-appointed attorney if one cannot afford one’s own, and notice that anything one chooses to say will be used against him or her.
The requirement that police officers advise suspects of these rights dates back to 1966. The Supreme Court in the case of Miranda vs. Arizona established the rule: Whenever a police officer places a suspect in custody, the suspect must be advised of certain rights prior to interrogation.
If the suspect is not so advised, then any statements made by the suspect in response to such interrogation cannot be used against him or her in court. That is, the government cannot use the product of the interrogation as evidence in its effort to prove the person’s guilt, so that any confession would be useless.
On its face, it appears to be a rather simple rule. But two
questions arise. First, what does “in custody” mean? And second, what is “the product of interrogation?”
Custody, for the purposes of this brief overview, is something more than being briefly detained by the police (such as during a traffic stop) and it is something less than being placed in a jail cell. A rough definition that many attorneys give their clients is that custody occurs when the handcuffs go on. This is not a very good technical answer, but it is not a bad rule of thumb.
The product of interrogation consists of answers given in response to questions posed by the police. Statements volunteered by a suspect absent any prompting by the police are not the product of police interrogation. If the suspect blurts out a confession without prompting by the police, it is not considered a product of interrogation and may be used as evidence against the suspect.
How does this rule play out in real life?
Let’s take a look at a hypothetical situation:
Police are called to the scene of a murder. Someone has stabbed a woman to death. Four blocks away, the police spot a man running away from the murder scene. He is carrying a bloody knife in his hand. Police arrest the suspect and seize the knife.
For some reason, the police fail to notify the suspect of his constitutional rights before they question him. One of the officers asks him why he was running, and he tells them that he has just stabbed a woman.
Question: How does the violation of this suspect’s rights under Miranda affect his situation? Answer: Not much.
Remember, only his statement can be excluded as evidence against him. The government can still use any other evidence going to the suspect’s guilt. In this scenario, the police are still left with what is probably an airtight case: The suspect was running from the murder scene; he was carrying a knife in his hand; the blood on the knife matches that of the victim; and the knife’s blade matches the victim’s wounds.
On a rare occasion, and I do mean rare, the exclusion of a suspect’s statement will make it impossible for the government to prove its case.
Some people will always find these rare instances intolerable. However, that is the price we pay as a free society to maintain our liberty. Rest assured, the courts are not eager to exclude any evidence going to the guilt of a defendant. Society’s interests are well-protected.
NOTICE: Contracted and published by The Oregonian. The purpose of this publication is to provide general information not to provide specific legal advice.