Most people are familiar with Miranda warnings which warn a suspect that, among other things, he/she has a right to remain silent and a right to an attorney before the police ask him/her questions about suspected criminal activity. If the police are required to give those Miranda warnings and do not and then ask questions of a suspect, the suspect’s answers will likely be inadmissible at the criminal trial. However, it is not always clear when the police are required to give Miranda warnings. For instance, are the police required to give the Miranda warnings to a suspect during a routine traffic stop before the officer asks the suspect questions about a possible crime? It depends on the circumstances.
For instance, consider a situation that occurred near Jacksonville, Florida that involved two people racing their vehicles, which is a misdemeanor crime in Florida. A police officer observed the race and pulled both vehicles over. He questioned both drivers, and they both admitted to racing. Both drivers were then given notices to appear in court to answer to criminal charges for racing. The police officer did not give the Miranda warnings to the drivers before asking them questions about the suspected racing crime.
The criminal defense lawyers tried to have those statements thrown out of court because the defendants were not given their Miranda warnings before being asked about the racing. The criminal defense lawyers were not successful. Whether a police officer needs to give Miranda warnings before asking investigative questions of a suspect depends on the nature of the encounter between the police officer and suspect. If it reasonably appears to the suspect that he/she is in custody or is under such pressure that his/her right to remain silent seems compromised, the police officer must give Miranda warnings before questioning the suspect about a crime. However, this is a fairly gray area. Some of the factors that determine whether a suspect is “in custody” are: the length of time of the questioning, the number of police officers involved in the encounter, whether the suspect is handcuffed, placed in the police car or otherwise moved to a different location and whether the suspect was searched. If some of these factors are present, the defendant likely has a good argument that he/she should have been given Miranda warnings prior to questioning and any answers he gave about any criminal activity are inadmissible in court. If, as in the racing case referenced above, the police encounter is more consistent with a normal traffic stop that is fairly brief and involves only a few questions while the suspect has not been constrained in any way, there is a good possibility that any answers he/she gives to police questioning could be used against him/her in court even if no Miranda warnings were given.