“But they didn't even read me my Miranda Rights!”
The statement above is one I hear all the time, and it exemplifies a common mistake people make regarding their Miranda Rights. While many people can recite their Miranda Rights by heart, most actually do not understand when Miranda Rights apply, or when they kick in. Many individuals believe that anytime a police officer or law enforcement official speaks with them, that they are entitled to have their Miranda Rights read to them. In reality, Miranda Rights only apply when you are in custody, and not only that, you must be in custody and at risk of incriminating yourself.
For example, you are in custody and are asked, “When did you first see the victim that night?” If you answer that, you could very well be in danger of incriminating yourself. If it is clear you are in custody and cannot leave, and are being asked questions that could incriminate yourself, your Miranda Rights should be read.
There is a common misconception about what custody means as well. In America it is perfectly reasonable for a police officer to approach you on the street and strike up a conversation. They might say, “Hey, I'm officer ______. Are you ______? Would you mind answering a few questions for us?” At this point they have not put you in handcuffs or somehow restricted your freedom. They can and might start asking you the same questions we talked about before. The big difference in this scenario is that you are free to walk away or terminate the conversation at any time. Thus, Miranda Rights do not apply.
Unfortunately, there are situations where the line between being in custody and not being in custody is unclear. Let's say there was an extraordinary show of force, and it was not just one officer that approached you, but three or four police cars. Or there were ten officers and you were surrounded. Would a person in this situation feel like they could just walk away or terminate the conversation? Probably not. It could be a situation where the police have ordered you to do something. “Mrs. Smith, have a seat on the sidewalk. Mrs. Smith, have a seat in the back of my car.” In this example, since your liberty and ability to move about freely has been compromised, you should be considered in custody.
In conclusion, Miranda Rights apply when you are in custody and the police are asking you questions that if answered, could lead to self-incrimination. If you voluntarily talk to the police and are free to terminate the conversation and leave, your Miranda Rights will not apply. The best way to avoid these situations is to simply not talk to the police or answer any questions posed by the police. What you can say is, “Officer, I understand that you are just trying to do your job, but I am going to exercise my right to remain silent.” And that is it.