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<i>Miranda</i> warnings: A jurisprudence of limits, boundaries, and now a need for individual assertion
By Jose H. Varela

Miranda warnings are part of the legal landscape in much the same way that the "Golden Rule" is a part of any discussion on morality. They both just seem right: treat others as you would like to be treated; you have the right to remain silent, etc. But Miranda jurisprudence, much like moral ambiguity, often changes what appears to be a comforting principle of criminal justice into a stark "totality of the circumstances" reality.

The objective of this article and self-study test is to discuss the legal underpinnings of the Miranda decision and what courts have done to this iconic legal principle since its historic introduction by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Miranda warnings are just that. They warn individuals during a custodial interrogation that if they respond to questions posed by law enforcement, their answers can be used against them in a court of law. The warning spelled out in Miranda v. Arizona is simple and direct: You have the right to remain silent. Anything that you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to the presence of an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning, if you so desire.

If a person is made aware of these rights and then chooses to affirmatively waive these rights, the police can continue questioning and use the information against that person.

As with many issues in the law, however, the devil is in the subsequent details. Miranda jurisprudence has continually redefined the applicability of the warning to differing situations and to the boundaries set for law enforcement officials during interrogations.

During this most recent term, for example, the Supreme Court revisited Miranda in several decisions. In one decision, it held that the wording of Miranda warnings is not set in stone. The high court found that Miranda warnings do not have to be given in the exact words noted above and that a variation of the warning is adequate. "The inquiry is simply whether the warnings reasonably conve[y] to [a suspect] his rights as required by Miranda." Florida v. Powell, 130 S.Ct. 1195 (2010).

Also, for purposes of the Miranda warning, Miranda v. Arizona itself stated that "custody" means that a person was "taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way."

What does interrogation or questioning mean for the purposes of Miranda? Questioning refers to any words or action by police that is reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. See Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980).

In assessing issues of custody or interrogation, "a court must examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, but the ultimate inquiry is simply whether there [was] a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest." California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121 (1983).

To assess whether an individual affirmatively waived the rights enumerated in Miranda, courts must assess whether the totality of the circumstances show that the defendant understood and decided to give up his or her rights. See North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369 (1979).

What if a person decides to remain silent and only answers questions after a long period of silence? A suspect's Miranda right to counsel must be invoked "unambiguously." Davis v. United States, 512 U. S. 452 (1994). If the accused makes an "ambiguous or equivocal" statement or no statement, the police are not required to end the interrogation. If a person answers a question voluntarily after having been advised of Miranda rights and knowingly understands such rights, that person has essentially waived his or her right to silence under Miranda by answering the question. Berghuis v. Thompkins, 130 S.Ct. 2250 (2010).

Although the Supreme Court has held that assertion of rights under Miranda must be scrupulously honored by law enforcement (Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981)), even this bright line rule has its limits. In Maryland v. Shatzer, 130 S.Ct. 1213 (2010), the high court ruled that police are now permitted to resume questioning of an individual who has asserted Miranda if there has been a break in custody. The Shatzer court settled on a period of 14 days as a reasonable period of time to allow for a break in custody for purposes of reinterrogating an individual who has previously asserted Miranda.

What happens when a law enforcement officer does not give a Miranda warning? Many in the public believe that it means the case is dismissed: "They did not read me my rights. Case is over, right?" Not really. As stated by the Miranda opinion itself, the only sanction for a Miranda violation is suppression of the defendant's statements in the prosecution's case-in-chief.

Moreover, even with a Miranda violation, the statements obtained can be used to impeach the defendant if he or she testifies at trial. Harris v. New York, 401 U.S. 222 (1971). And, the physical fruits of a statement obtained in violation of Miranda can generally be used against a defendant, even in the prosecution's case-in-chief. See United States v. Patane, 542 U.S. 630 (2004).

The use of statements obtained in violation of Miranda may be contrasted with the treatment of involuntary statements. Involuntary statements cannot be used in any way against a defendant, including to impeach his or her testimony. See Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978). Further, physical and secondary evidence discovered due to an involuntary statement must also be suppressed. United States v. Ceccolini, 435 U.S. 268 (1978). Although beyond the scope of this article, one key to whether a statement is voluntary is coercion, with courts finding that the use of physical force (United States v. Jenkins, 938 F.2d 934 (9th Cir. 1991)) or psychological coercion (Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279 (1991)) will yield involuntary statements.

The three major exceptions to the rule that police must give suspects a Miranda warning are the public safety exception, the rescue doctrine, and the booking exception.

If the officers are asking questions related to public safety, even if the questions call for an incriminating response, the giving of a Miranda warning is excused. New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984). In Quarles, for example, a suspect hid his gun somewhere in a grocery store, and police were allowed to ask him without a Miranda warning where he put it because of a concern for public safety.

The elements of the rescue doctrine include: "1. Urgency of need in that no other course of action promises relief; 2. The possibility of saving human life by rescuing a person whose life is in danger; [and] 3. Rescue as the primary purpose and motive of the interrogators." People v. Riddle, 83 Cal.App.3d 563 (1978).

The rescue doctrine has been applied when the main concern of the police in asking questions is rescuing a victim, and they do not have time for the Miranda waiver procedure. See People v. Dean, 39 Cal.App.3d 875 (1974). In Dean, the police arrested a defendant who had appeared to pick up the victim's ransom, and they then asked him where the victim was. Due to the urgency of the situation, the possibility that human life could be saved, and the fact that the motive of the police was to rescue, the failure to give a Miranda warning was excused, and the defendant's statements were used against him in trial.

The rescue doctrine also applies when the police are trying to save a defendant's life. The main example is saving the defendant from a drug overdose. People v. Stevenson, 51 Cal.App.4th 1234 (1996).

The last exception is for administrative questions. Police officers who are processing a person following an arrest are allowed to ask administrative questions during the booking process, such as the person's address and contact information, without giving a Miranda warning and getting a waiver, even if the questions result in an incriminating response. Pennsylvania v. Muniz, 496 U.S. 582 (1990). However, as stated by the Muniz opinion, "recognizing a 'booking exception' to Miranda does not mean, of course, that any question asked during the booking process falls within that exception. Without obtaining a waiver of the suspect's Miranda rights, the police may not ask questions, even during booking, that are designed to elicit incriminatory admissions."

In Berghuis v. Thompkins, Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent asked whether the Supreme Court has turned "Miranda upside down" by requiring that an individual do more than remain silent to invoke his or her right not to speak with interrogating officers.

Justice Sotomayor raises a legitimate issue, as it now appears that Miranda warnings have less to do with deterrence on law enforcement than with an individual being placed on notice to "use or lose" these rights. Thus, a person must assert his or her Miranda rights with obvious clarity and continue to assert these rights in all subsequent interactions with law enforcement, whether these interactions are days or years away, if they are to receive the protections afforded by Miranda.

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