Does Miranda apply to on-the-scene questioning?

Some people think that  Miranda  applies to all conversations with police officers about crime. It doesn’t. Although officers must give the  Miranda warning  prior to interrogating people in custody, there are times when they can talk with suspects and  Miranda  doesn’t apply. One such time is when the officer asks general questions at the scene of a crime.

"What's Up?"

When police officers arrive at the scene of a crime, they often ask, “What happened?” or “What’s going on?” The  Miranda  ruling typically doesn’t affect this type of general questioning, meaning that any incriminating responses defendants give will probably be admissible in court. (Hoffner v. Bradshaw, 622 F.3d 487 (6th Cir. 2010).)

(For information on a related topic, see  Does Miranda apply to spontaneous statements?)

Example:  A police officer goes to Gary’s house after receiving a phone call about a situation there. He knocks on the door and asks, “What’s the trouble?” Gary tells him, “I killed my wife.” Gary’s statement to the officer is the result of general on-the-scene questioning and Gary wasn't in custody.  Miranda  doesn’t apply. (State v. Gosser, 236 A.2d 377 (N.J. 1967).)

Routine Questioning

Even if the questions officers ask are more than general—if they’re specific to certain activity,  Miranda  may not apply if the inquiry is routine.

Example:  Two officers are patrolling an area where there’s frequent littering. They see Chris walking with a brown paper bag. Less than a minute later, Chris, who’s no longer carrying the bag, flags them down. The officers ask Chris where he put the bag; he says he tossed it. They ask Chris questions about his identity, pat him down, and then tell him to “beat it.” The officers later find in the same area a brown paper bag containing bags of heroin; the bags carry Chris’s fingerprints. Chris’s statements can come in at trial. The officers' questioning was routine and Chris wasn’t in custody. (U.S. v. Clark, 425 F.2d 827 (3rd  Cir. 1970).)

Custodial Interrogation Compared

Determining whether questioning is routine and on the scene, as opposed to custodial interrogation, depends on the circumstances. The key issues are  whether the suspect is in custody, and whether the officers ask pointed questions or do anything else that they should know is reasonably likely to evoke an incriminating response. (For a fuller explanation, see  Do officers have to read the Miranda rights before talking to a suspect?)

Example:  Officers believe that Sarah and Anthony may be selling drugs and may have weapons. They stop the pair in a car and ask them to raise their hands. Anthony stays slumped in his seat and raises only one hand. The officers take him out of the car, handcuff him, and pat him down. One officer then notices drug paraphernalia inside an unzipped gym bag in the car. The officer asks Anthony whether the bag belongs to him. Anthony says it does, and the officers arrest him. The prosecution can’t use Anthony’s admission because the officers didn’t read him hisMiranda  rights. The questioning constituted interrogation because its purpose was to determine who had broken the law through possession of the contraband. And Anthony was in custody because he was in handcuffs, at least two officers surrounded him, and the officers eventually arrested him. (U.S. v. Allison, 637 F. Supp. 2d 657 (S.D. Iowa 2009).)

Consult an Experienced Attorney

If you are dealing with criminal charges or are concerned about an interaction with the police, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer for a full explanation of the law and your options.

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