Miranda Decision Issued By State Supreme Court
One of the biggest misconceptions among the lay population is the role of the Miranda advisement in the criminal justice system. This comes from the inaccurate way in which most TV programs address Miranda. In shows like Law & Order, the police read just about everyone their Miranda rights prior to questioning. And, if the cops forget to do so, in a moment of dramatic fury, the judge dismisses the case based on this “technicality.” That isn’t the way it works out in real life. First, the police don’t have to read a suspect his or her Miranda rights unless two circumstances exist. First, the suspect must be in custody. Second, the suspect must be subject to interrogation. Custody is defined as being in a situation where a reasonable person in your shoes would not feel free to leave. This means that you must be placed in a scenario where you feel you have no choice but to remain with the police. A common police tactic to avoid having to read the suspect his or her Miranda rights is to take a suspect down to the police station and bring them into an interview room within the bowels of the building. The suspect is then told that that the police have a mountain of evidence implicating him or her in the crime. The police may even lie to the suspect about the state of the evidence in order to rattle them. For instance, the police may say that the suspect’s fingerprints or DNA were located on an object. After this is done, but before the questioning begin, the police then tell the suspect that the door will be closed for the suspect’s privacy, but that the suspect is free to leave if he or she wants to. Of course, the suspect feels trapped, isolated, and compelled to talk. But, because the suspect was told he was free to leave, the courts typically hold that he was not actually in custody. Thus, the police were not required to read the suspect his Miranda rights. This means that the suspect is never expressly told that he has the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Interrogation is defined as questioning by law enforcement that is designed to elicit incriminating information. It does not include, however, general fact finding questions at the scene of a crime. This, like custody, involves a lot of grey areas. If the police are talking to a suspect, just about anything the suspect says is potentially incriminating in one form or another. For instance, if the suspect is asked something basic, like where he or she was sitting in a car, the answer may later be used against the suspect to show he or she was within reaching distance of where drugs or weapons were found by the police. This will be used by the prosecution to make the claim that the suspect exercised “dominion or control” over the contraband. So, a suspect may say that before being asked this kind of question, he or she should have been read his Miranda warnings. But, a court is likely to say that this kind of question was just a general fact finding question, and, thus, the police did not have to read him or her the Miranda warnings. The law is very unclear where the line between general fact finding questions and specific questions designed to elicit incriminating responses exists. Second, the remedy for a Miranda violation is not to have the case thrown out. Instead, the remedy is that the statements obtained in violation of Miranda cannot be used by the prosecution in its case-in-chief. That means that the cop cannot be called to the stand and asked to relay what the defendant told him. However, the statement will come in if the defendant testifies differently than what he or she told the cops. So, if the defendant told the cops that the gun was his, and that statement is suppressed because of a Miranda violation, the defendant cannot then get up on the stand and claim that the gun was his cousin’s. If he tries to do this, he can be impeached by his prior statement, even if that was obtained in violation of Miranda. So, in most cases, a Miranda violation doesn’t amount to much because it means that the defendant is faced with the choice of not testifying in his own defense, or testifying but in a way that admits what he already told the police. The subtleties of Miranda were on display in a recent South Dakota Supreme Court case, State v. Deal. In Deal, the defendant was suspected of rape. After being accused of the crime, Deal tried to commit suicide, leading to his hospitalization. On the day he was released from the hospital, the police came to his home and questioned him on his door step. It was December and Deal was cold. The police suggested that the questioning continue in the police cruiser, where it was warmer. When questioned about the rape, Deal did not confess or make any incriminating verbal admissions. However, when questioned, according to the police, Deal was shaking, acting nervous, and tearing up. Deal moved to suppress these observations of him because they were the result of a custodial interrogation that was conducted in violation of Miranda. The trial court, and ultimately the South Dakota Supreme Court, disagreed with Deal. When assessing the situation, the South Dakota Supreme Court began its analysis with this quote, “Police officers are not required to administer Miranda warnings to everyone whom they question.” This says a lot, and is contrary to what most TV shows depict. The Court found that Deal was not in custody because a reasonable person in Deal’s shoes would have understood that they were free to get out of the police car when asked questions by the police. The Court noted that the police are not required to tell suspects that they are free to leave as long as the circumstances don’t suggest that the person is being forced to stay. The fact that Deal had been deceived at the beginning of the interview was also not dispositive of the issue. Initially, the police asked Deal questions about his injuries and his stay in the hospital. It was only once he was in the police car that the police “switched gears” and began questioning him about the rape. The Court held that as long as a reasonable person in Deal’s situation would have understood that they could leave the police car, there was no custody, and thus Miranda was not required. The Deal case highlights the limitations on the Miranda requirement and how it is less of tool for the defense than most people believe. The Miranda decision was of great benefit to the accused at one point in our country’s history, but over the years its value has been eroded as the law enforcement community has figured out ways to circumvent its purpose.