Miranda Rights: A Brief History and Explanation

Miranda Rights: A Brief History and Explanation

Criminal Lawyer“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

It is impossible to watch an American crime drama without hearing police use this phrase (usually as they handcuff a suspect). But why must police say these words? When are they required to say them? And—most importantly—how does one invoke their rights?


These words (known as the “Miranda Rights”) come from the Supreme Court case “Miranda v. Arizona.” In Miranda, officers subjected 24-year-old Ernesto Miranda to a grueling two-hour interrogation at the police station. During his questioning, Miranda was never told about his right to remain silent, his right to a lawyer, or the consequences of giving a statement. Miranda eventually confessed during his questioning, and his confession was used at trial to convict him. 

Miranda appealed his conviction and the case eventually made its way to The Supreme Court. His lawyers argued Miranda’s presence in the interrogation room for two hours of questioning—coupled with his ignorance of his constitutional rights—amounted to a forced confession under threat of detention. 

In a 5-4 decision, The Supreme Court agreed that Miranda’s confession was illegally obtained. The court held that, because Miranda was not aware of his rights, he could not voluntarily waive them.  Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for this case and designed the framework for police to follow in order to obtain lawful confessions. This opinion is the foundation of the Miranda rights.

Miranda in Practice

The Miranda decision safeguards an accused person’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel and Fifth Amendment right to not be compelled to serve as a witness against one’s self. The safeguard works by requiring police to inform a suspect of their Miranda rights prior to Custodial Interrogation

Custodial interrogation is a two-part analysis. The first part is determining whether a person is in custody. Chief Justice Warren wrote that a suspect is in custody (for Miranda purposes) if “a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any way.” In other words, it isn’t necessary for police to have a suspect in handcuffs before they are required to read them their rights. While an ordinary traffic stop does not amount to this form of custody, courts will look at the particular circumstances to determine whether a person’s activities are so restricted as to be considered “in custody” for Miranda purposes. 

The second part of the analysis is whether the suspect is being interrogated. While an interrogation may be as simple as police questioning someone about a crime, it is not always that straight forward. The Supreme Court held that even indirect methods (such as police discussing the consequences of a crime in front of a suspect to coerce a confession) can be considered interrogation when police officers are likely to elicit an incriminating response through their words or actions.

Invoking your Rights

The two rights in the Miranda an accused person should be most familiar with are: 1) the right to remain silent; and 2) the right to an attorney.

The right to remain silent is not automatic. In other words, staying silent will not stop police from asking questions. To invoke this right, a suspect must unambiguously state they are asserting their right to remain silent (“I choose to remain silent” or something to that effect). Following this statement, police should end their questioning. 

The right to a criminal attorney is invoked in a similar way. A suspect must unambiguously ask for an attorney in order to exercise this right. Once an attorney has been requested, police must end questioning of the suspect until an attorney is present.

These are the basic principles of Miranda for a lay-person. However, when push comes to shove, having an experienced attorney can make all the difference, as the Law Offices of Thomas R. Cox III can explain.. If you, or someone you love, is accused of a crime, contact a lawyer for a consultation. 

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