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Departments : Point of Law

'Functional Equivalent' of Miranda Questions

Miranda "interrogation" includes more than express questioning.

May 11, 2011  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Photo: Zuma Press.

The familiar Miranda rule generally makes a defendant's statements inadmissible if the statements were obtained by custodial police interrogation without a warning and waiver (express or implied). "Interrogation" has been defined by the Supreme Court to include both direct questioning and its "functional equivalent." What does this term mean? Three Supreme Court cases and numerous decisions from the federal appeals court have considered this question.

Rhode Island v. Innis

Thomas J. Innis robbed and murdered a taxi driver in Providence. Police arrested him shortly after another robbery during which he had used a shotgun. The gun was not recovered by the arresting officer. Innis was given a Miranda warning and he asked for a lawyer. En route to the station, three officers who were transporting him talked among themselves about the need to find the shotgun, because of the proximity of a school for handicapped children, one of whom might find the gun and get hurt. Innis volunteered to show the officers where he had hidden the shotgun in a nearby field.

At his trial, Innis sought to suppress his statements revealing the location of the shotgun, on the ground that he had been subjected to custodial police interrogation after invoking his right to counsel. The U.S. Supreme Court noted that the trial judge believed the officers when they testified that they had not intended to provoke Innis into talking when they discussed among themselves the need to find his gun, and the court held that the officers could not have foreseen that Innis would volunteer to show them where it was. The court ruled that this officer-conversation did not amount to "interrogation." The Innis decision enunciated the definition of "interrogation" that all lower courts-state and federal-must apply:

"We conclude that the Miranda safeguards come into play whenever a person in custody is subjected to either express questioning or its functional equivalent. That is to say, the term 'interrogation' under Miranda refers not only to express questioning, but also to any words or actions on the part of the police (other than those normally attendant to arrest and custody) that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect."

Under this definition, three points are obvious: (1) you don't have to speak a single word to be engaged in "interrogation," since "actions" can be the functional equivalent of questions; (2) standard booking questions and custodial instructions and inquiries that are "normally attendant to arrest and custody" are not "interrogation," even if they happen to provoke an incriminating response (which would be admissible); and (3) only speech and actions that could foreseeably prompt an incriminating response are "interrogation" ( in the words of the court, only words or actions that you "should have known" would likely elicit an incriminating response).

Pennsylvania v. Muniz

The Supreme Court used a DUI case to differentiate questions that are likely to elicit incriminating responses from those that are not. Inocencio Muniz was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol on a Pennsylvania highway. At the station and before Miranda warnings had been given, officers put a series of questions to Muniz and gave him directions for completing sobriety tests, all of which was video and audio taped. Muniz moved to exclude all of his responses, but the Supreme Court found that not all of the officers' words and actions constituted

When officers prompted Muniz to say certain things merely to demonstrate that his speech was slurred and that his coordination was impaired, this was not "interrogation." Also, his uttered comments while he was being directed to take a breathalyzer test were admissible because giving a DUI arrestee such instructions is "normally attendant to arrest" for DUI. These portions of the tape were admissible.

On the other hand, when officers quizzed Muniz as to the date on his sixth birthday, they were seeking "testimonial evidence" that is protected by the Fifth Amendment and Miranda. Asking a suspect to answer a question that requires a verbal response that is incriminating because of its content, rather than its pronunciation, is the functional equivalent of asking him whether he is too drunk to compute the date of his sixth birthday. The evidence of his incorrect response was inadmissible.

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