Former Municipial Court Judge

Former Assistant District Attny.

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Understanding the Miranda Rights

Tim Powers

Law Office of Tim Powers


You Have the Right to Remain Silent

Those words have been popularized in television and movies, and many people recognize them as the opening of the Miranda rights. But what those rights are, and what results when police officers fail to read them to criminal suspects, are topics that are frequently misunderstood.

Before Miranda, the right against self-incrimination was never self-executing and always had to be invoked by the suspect. This invocation is what is commonly referred to as pleading the Fifth. In Miranda, the Supreme Court shifted this burden to the police, and required them to specifically advise suspects of their right to remain silent and their right to have an attorney present during questioning. The Court ruled that all statements or confessions made in the absence of the warnings are inherently involuntary and coerced, and hence inadmissible in court.

The most common misconception regarding the warnings is that police must read them to everyone that they arrest, and that an arrest without them is somehow invalid. This is pure myth: as long as police have probable cause to believe a suspect has committed a crime, the arrest is valid.

The decision in Miranda v. Arizona essentially is that The prosecution may not use statements . . . stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination. Miranda, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). This means that any time a person is in custody and subject to interrogation, the police must apprise the person of his rights, or the statements are inadmissible in court.

Custody is defined as any deprivation of liberty where the person does not feel the freedom to simply walk away. It should be noted that courts generally rule that people are not in custody during routine traffic stops and other routine police encounters.

Interrogation means questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or, any other police action that produces an incriminating response.

Once these two elements exist, the police are required to read a suspect the warnings. The reason for this requirement is that the danger of coercion resulting from the interaction of custody and official interrogation, whereby the suspect may feel compelled to speak by the fear of reprisal for remaining silent or in the hope of more lenient treatment should he confess. Illinois v. Perkins, 496 U.S. 292 (1990).


Some important exceptions to Miranda have been highlighted in Supreme Court opinions.

First, once the Miranda warnings are given, any statements that the suspect makes after that point are admissible, even if they are the same statements that were made prior to the warnings. This is true because a confession made by a suspect with knowledge of his Miranda rights is not considered the product of coercive police conduct, due to the fact that the suspect is now fully aware of his rights.

Also, [a]n undercover law enforcement officer posing as a fellow inmate need not give Miranda warnings to an incarcerated suspect before asking questions that may elicit an incriminating response. Perkins, 496 U.S. 292. This exception exists because when a prisoner does not know that he is talking to an undercover agent, the essential ingredients of a police dominated atmosphere and compulsion are lacking. Id.

Know Your Rights

It is absolutely vital that suspects understand that the rights covered by the Miranda warnings can be waived, or given up, provided the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444. People can waive their rights in any number of ways, verbally, in writing, or impliedly by making statements after the warnings are issued. Increasingly, police write a person's confessions on forms containing pre-printed Miranda waivers at the bottom, and people often fail to notice the language on signing the confessions. Thus, it is essential that when taken into custody, people not talk to police or sign anything without an attorney present.

The upshot of Miranda is that a jury cannot know about any statements given prior to the defendant's advisement of his Miranda rights if the suspect gives the statements in a police-dominated atmosphere. Nor can it hear any part of an interrogation that occurred after the defendant invoked the right to an attorney. See, e.g., Minnick v. Mississippi, 498 U.S. 146, 156 (1990). The fact that all police questioning must cease upon an individual requesting an attorney is a powerful tool in resisting police interrogation. However, given the inherently coercive nature of police encounters, people are sometimes hesitant to invoke their rights for a number of reasons.

When the Supreme Court revisited Miranda, it held that an accused…, having expressed his desire to deal with the police only through counsel, is not subject to further interrogation by the authorities until counsel has been made available to him, unless the accused himself initiates further communication, exchanges, or conversations with the police. Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 484 (1981).

However, a suspect should never waive the right to counsel and should waive the right against self-incrimination only after conferring with an attorney. When a citizen is facing prosecution by the resources of the government, his most powerful aegis is the Constitution. Once a person waives his constitutional rights, the chances of a favorable outcome quickly diminish.

If you are seeking aggressive criminal representation by an experienced criminal defense attorney for your Denton County criminal case or arrest in Denton County, contact the offices of Tim Powers today. There is no charge or obligation for the initial consultation. 940.580.2899.

*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult an attorney.