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Florida Case Addresses Miranda Warnings

In case you didn’t know, Miranda warnings are those statements that the cops utter after arresting someone: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to an attorney…etc.”  The law does not specifically state exactly how to say the Miranda warnings, but the police do need to communicate the basic points to suspects before subjecting them to questioning.  So, how clear do the warnings need to be?

Last February the Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding Florida’s Miranda version, despite the defendant’s complaints regarding the clarity of the statements given to him.  The defendant, Kevin Powell, was arrested in connection to a firearm he had purchased.  Prior to a police interrogation, Powell had signed a Miranda statement that referred to his right to a lawyer.  Powell asserted that his rights were violated because the Miranda device he had signed did not clearly inform him that he had a right to a lawyer during the interrogation.

In a majority 7-2 decision written by Justice Ginsburg, the Florida v. Powell court concluded that Powell did receive sufficient information regarding his rights to a lawyer during the interrogation.  In their typical technical fashion, the judges picked apart the language used in the Miranda warning, which read, “If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, one will be appointed for you without cost and before any questioning.  You have the right to use any of these rights at any time during this interview”.

As you can see, Powell understandably thought that the warning only referred to the lawyer being present before any questioning, and not during.  But the court reasoned that the phrase “the right to use any of these rights at any time during this interview” should have put Powell on notice that he was entitled to a lawyer during the interrogation as well as before.

Is this really fair for Powell?  Talk about attention to detail.  I’m not sure if your every day citizen would reach the same conclusion as the court.  In a very thorough column addressing the clarity of Miranda warnings , Sherry F. Colb explains how the average person would normally interpret the warnings to mean.

She says that most people would interpret the warnings to mean that as a suspect, they are entitled to have a lawyer assist them in court at trial.  In other words, the majority of people usually correlate the “you have a right to a lawyer” statement with trial, and not with pre-trial matters such as police interrogations.

Most people don’t really understand that they have a right to a lawyer during interrogations and not just after trial has started.  This is probably due to the fact that, sad to say, we get most of our ideas about legal rights from T.V. shows and movies.  And in most movie scripts, after the suspect is arrested and Mirandized, the story cuts to the next scene where a lawyer is visiting them in jail or is arguing in court.  Personally I don’t recall ever seeing a movie character invoke their Miranda rights in order to have a lawyer present during an interrogation.

Now I’m not saying that movies need to follow legal procedures to the tee (that would probably take all the fun and drama out of them), or that they justify a lack of knowledge.  But the media is a good reflection of the general perception of what Miranda warnings mean, and we can see why Powell’s argument is compelling.

In other legal news involving Miranda warnings, the Supreme Court ruled that Miranda warnings are not a bar to the police requestioning a suspect even after they have invoked the right to a lawyer.  In another 7-2 decision, also issued last February, the justices in Maryland v. Shatzer ruled that the police are allowed to contact a suspect again, so long as at least 14 days have passed since the initial interrogation and Miranda warnings.

Several attorneys differ in their opinion on the Shatzer ruling.  Some say the court might as well do away entirely with the Miranda requirements if police are free to question them later anyway.  Other point out that the purpose of the new 14 day period is to allow questioning after other evidence has had time to come in, such as DNA samples.

Finally, another Miranda case, Berghius v. Tompkins is currently still being litigated in Michigan.  This time the case questions whether silence amounts to a waiver of Miranda rights.  In particular the case involves the requirement that waivers be made “knowingly and intelligently”.

Wow.  It’s been quite a year for the police and their Miranda warnings.  All this litigation seems to be making things more muddy rather than clarifying what needs to be done.  I think to myself, “why isn’t there a standard version for the warnings anyway?”  If I had the task of creating a version of the warnings, it would probably read: “You have the right to an attorney.  Do you need an attorney to help you understand your rights to an attorney?”


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