Miranda rights and intoxication

I was talking with a friend (a non-lawyer) the other day.  They asked me about the Miranda rights and whether or not the police were required to give them in any investigation, in traffic stops and in DUI investigations.  I’ve written here, here and here about the Miranda rights.

He asked a follow-up question:

“But what’s the point of giving a drunk driving suspect their rights?  They’re drunk.”

In order to have an effective Miranda advisement and to make any statement admissible, there must be a valid waiver of those rights.  The legal standard is that a suspect must “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily” waive their rights.

Knowing and Intelligent:  First, the advisement must be given in a way that is sufficient to explain what the rights are.  There are no magic words that must be given during a Miranda warning.  What is important is that the four rights be explained in a way the person understands them.  While most police agencies tend to use the same standard language, if they deviate from the language, it will not be an invalid Miranda advisement. . . unless they mess up and leave out a crucial part.  The test is whether or not in claiming that a suspect waived their rights whether they knew what the rights were before giving them up, understanding the consequences of doing so.  That’s the “knowing and intelligent” part.  This is where the question of whether or not a valid advisement can be given to somebody that’s intoxicated falls.  If a person is too drunk to understand their rights, how can the prosecution prove the person truly understood the rights that were being given?

Voluntary: If a person, after a valid advisement of the rights, chooses to give up those rights and speak with the police, their statement can only be used if it is “voluntary.”  Here, the court looks at the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding the waiver.  What they are looking for is whether or not the waiver was really the product of a person’s choice or if they were somehow forced to give up their rights.  Ways that will make a waiver involuntary include:

  • Threats to the suspect or their loved ones.   If the police say or do something that makes their suspect feel they must give a statement, then the waiver of Miranda rights isn’t truly voluntary.  Threats to “make it worse” if they don’t give a statement or to “tell the DA to throw the book at them” are examples.  Threats to arrest a suspect’s loved ones if they don’t give a statement also fall into this category.
  • Promises of leniency.  This is the opposite of threatening a person, but will also make a Miranda waiver involuntary.  For example, if the police promise to make the sentence lighter or “speak to the judge for them” if the suspect will just give a statement and admit their guilt will render the statement involuntary and it will be excluded.  Similarly, if the police say they won’t arrest a wife or relative in exchange for a statement, it is not voluntary.
  • Police coercion:  Conduct by the police that in any way overcomes a suspect’s free will in making an important decision to give up constitutional rights will also render statements involuntary and inadmissible in court.

Every case is unique.  My general rule is that it is not a good idea to give a statement to the police.  Anything can (and in fact, will) be used against you.  If you’ve given a statement already, all is not lost.  Statements must be legally admissible before they can be used against you.  Protect your rights.

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