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What happens when Miranda warnings are ambiguous in a criminal case?

Most people know about the “right to remain silent.”  This phrase is used in countless television shows and movies, so many Americans assume that these rights trigger as soon as they are in custody.  But in reality, it is much more confusing.  The Miranda decision itself is unclear as to when exactly Miranda rights begin.  Michigan v. Mathews is a case that is currently pending before the United States Supreme Court and asks the Court to clarify whether Miranda is satisfied when a suspect in custody is advised at the beginning of an interrogation that they have the right to an attorney, but is not explicitly advised that they are entitled to the attorney’s presence before and during interrogation.

The Michigan Court of Appeals held that a general “right to counsel” warning is insufficient, and that Miranda requires language expressly warning the suspect of the right to the presence of counsel before and during interrogation.  This decision conflicts with the Sixth Circuit, so there are different standards for Miranda warnings depending on whether the case goes to state or federal court.

This can be dangerous, because defendants might assume that a warning to a “right to attorney,” may trigger their Miranda rights when in fact they are still unprotected.

What happened in the Mathews case?

Gabriel Dumas was the husband of the defendant.  He died in the defendant’s apartment after the defendant shot him during an altercation.  She called 911 shortly afterwards and informed them that she had shot Dumas.  She was taken into custody and interviewed twice.  The first time she was given a written advice of rights form and signed it.  The second time, she spoke to a different officer who casually mentioned her right to an attorney but did not formally advise her of her rights.  The defendant moved to suppress the evidence and it was granted at both the trial and appellate court level because Miranda warnings were not properly given.  Simply telling the defendant that she had a “right to a lawyer” did not satisfy Miranda.

As with many cases that are brought before the Supreme Court, there is a circuit split here when it comes to this issue of whether Miranda is satisfied when a defendant is told about a general “right to an attorney.”  The Miranda decision itself is unclear if this general warning will suffice.

In fact, in the Miranda decision, the Supreme Court approved an FBI agent’s warning to the defendant that he had a “right to an attorney.”  The FBI told the suspects this but did not explicitly advise them that they had a right to an attorney during interrogation.

In the state the of Michigan, the Sixth Circuit has approved general “right to an attorney” warnings but the state appellate court requires specific temporal language.  This is confusing and leaves defendants in the dark as to whether general warnings such as those given in this case comply with Miranda by reasonably conveying that the right to a lawyer includes the presence of a lawyer before and during interrogation.

The Supreme Court should grant cert in this case to resolve this confusion.  To learn more about important cases pending before the Supreme Court and Miranda rights, follow Attorney DelSignore on Facebook.

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