No Supreme Court decision on criminal law has been more misunderstood than Miranda v. Arizona. Because of this, the court regularly grants review of lower court Miranda decisions that are perpetuating the misunderstandings (to date, the court has issued 54 decisions construing Miranda, and more cases are awaiting review).               

Some myths that have sprouted from Miranda have shown so much inertia that the court has had to keep coming back to try to knock them down. Here are five of the most persistent.

1: "Police 'focus of suspicion' causes custody."

When trying to determine whether a suspect was "in custody" at a given time and therefore entitled to warnings before interrogation, numerous lower courts mistakenly thought it significant that the suspect had become the "focus" of police suspicion at the time of questioning. How many times, over how many years, has the Supreme Court tried to correct this recurring mistake?

"Although the 'focus' of an investigation may indeed have been on Beckwith at the time of the interview, he hardly found himself in the custodial situation described by the Miranda court as the basis of its holding." (Beckwith v. U.S., 1976)

"The requirement of warnings is not to be imposed simply because the questioned person is one whom the police suspect." (Oregon v. Mathiason, 1977)

"Our holding in Mathiason reflected our earlier holding in Beckwith, in which we rejected the notion that the 'in custody' requirement was satisfied merely because the police interviewed a person who was the 'focus' of a criminal investigation." (California v. Beheler, 1983)

"The mere fact that an investigation has focused on a suspect does not trigger the need for Miranda warnings in non-custodial settings." (Minnesota v. Murphy, 1984)

"We hold, not for the first time, that an officer's subjective and undisclosed view concerning whether the person being interrogated is a suspect is irrelevant to the assessment whether the person is in custody." (Stansbury v. California, 1994)

2: "Custody occurs whenever the suspect is 'not free to leave.'"

"Custody" means "formal arrest, or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest." (California v. Beheler) If the suspect is not free to leave a police station, he's in custody, because this is an arrest-like restraint. But a vehicle stop or a pedestrian detention (what the court calls a "Terry stop"), not amounting to an arrest-like restraint, is not custody, even though the detained person is "not free to leave."

"The comparatively nonthreatening character of detentions of this sort [ped stops] explains the absence of any suggestion in our opinions that Terry stops are subject to the dictates of Miranda. The similarly noncoercive aspect of ordinary traffic stops prompts us to hold that persons temporarily detained pursuant to such stops are not 'in custody' for the purposes of Miranda." (Berkemer v. McCarty)

"Thus, the temporary and nonthreatening detention involved in a traffic stop or a Terry stop does not constitute custody." (Maryland v. Shatzer)

"Our cases make clear that the freedom-of-movement test identifies only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for Miranda custody." (Howes v. Fields)

3: "Warnings should be given immediately upon arrest."

Only on TV. Unless interrogation commences immediately upon arrest (which is rarely necessary—or wise), it's not yet time to give warnings. The Miranda decision specified warnings that are to be given "prior to any questioning" of a person in custody, and stressed that "a warning at the time of questioning is indispensable." A warning given before the onset of custodial interrogation may not meet this requirement, and potentially deprives the prosecution of volunteered statements or guilty silence, which could be used at trial. (Fletcher v. Weir)

Miranda safeguards "are required not where a person is taken into custody, but rather where a suspect in custody is subjected to interrogation." (Rhode Island v. Innis)

"It is the premise of Miranda that the danger of coercion results from the interaction of custody and official interrogation." (Illinois v. Perkins)

4: "After the warning and acknowledgment of understanding, the suspect must be directly asked whether he wants to talk without a lawyer."

Again, only on TV. As long ago as 1979, the Supreme Court said that a Miranda waiver could be either express or implied. "The [Miranda] Court did not hold that an express statement is indispensable to finding a waiver. In at least some cases, waiver can be clearly inferred from the actions and words of the person being interrogated." (North Carolina v. Butler)

The court repeated this rule in a 2010 decision, saying "The prosecution does not need to show that a waiver of Miranda rights was express. An implicit waiver is sufficient to admit a suspect's statement into evidence. Where the prosecution shows that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, an accused's uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver of the right to remain silent." (Berghuis v. Thompkins)

In light of Butler and Berghuis, it's sufficient to give the four-part warning, ask the suspect if he understands, and once he acknowledges that he does, simply ask an easy, engaging, non-threatening question that induces him to talk. His response is his waiver, and interrogation can proceed.

5: "Evidence obtained without Miranda compliance is the 'tainted fruit of the poison tree,' and is inadmissible."

In Wong Sun v. U.S., the Supreme Court spoke of evidence derived from a violation of a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights as being "fruit of the poisonous tree," which is inadmissible to prove guilt. Careless observers assumed this same doctrine would apply to evidence discovered through custodial interrogation that did not meet Miranda admissibility requirements.

But as the court explained in Oregon v. Elstad, the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protect different rights, so the Fourth Amendment "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine doesn't automatically apply to Miranda, which was based on the Fifth Amendment. A later case, Missouri v. Seibert, noted that "the court in Elstad rejected the Wong Sun fruits doctrine."

Nevertheless, it was necessary for the Supreme Court to repeat this distinction when reversing a federal appeals court 19 years after Elstad. As to evidence obtained via statements obtained through failures to comply with Miranda, said the court, "We decline to apply Wong Sun to such failures. There is no reason to apply the 'fruit of the poisonous tree' doctrine of Wong Sun." (U.S. v. Patane)

Myth Versus Reality

Officers, attorneys, and judges cannot afford to misapply legal principles to the cases they handle. Working under mistaken impressions about the case law can cause the suppression of evidence, and the loss of opportunities to get evidence.

You should know that under controlling U.S. Supreme Court rulings, your subjective "focus of suspicion" does not create "custody;" that a suspect is not necessarily in custody whenever he's "not free to leave;" that Miranda warnings are not appropriate until custodial interrogation is imminent; that implied waivers are just as acceptable as express waivers (and easier to get); and that there is no "fruit of the poisonous tree" rule applicable to Miranda.

Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as special counsel to the Los Angeles County district attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."

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