Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story — guest Lisa Preston

Orchids coverGather round, children, as we welcome Lisa Preston to the blog. A veteran police officer and EMT, as well as a horse trainer and backcountry adventurer, she’s the author of the new novel ORCHIDS AND STONE. (Read more about Lisa, below.) Today, she’s sharing a cop’s perspective on Miranda warnings, and how you can use them to strengthen your story without breaking the law. 

Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story

I once read (part) of a novel by a best-selling author in which a character pleads guilty to murder then the rest of the plot develops over the succeeding criminal trial. Of course, this is not at all what would happen; there would not even be a trial. Only those who plead not guilty receive criminal trials.

Most legal goofs are not so egregious and will likely be missed by many readers, but the writer will lose credibility with readers who roll their eyes when a writer bends the legal system too far for the reader to ride along. As a retired cop, I am one of those readers who doesn’t tolerate fiction with significant goofs in legal procedure. As a writer, I was amused when an editor thought the police officer who had arrested my protagonist should have Mirandized her. This brings me to the two major misunderstandings I see writers struggle with on Miranda warnings.

[LAB: Just because the cops turn the proper noun Miranda into a verb by adding -ize does not mean you may do so in any other context. We shall tolerate this one grammatical misuse only!]

First, Miranda [LAB: Named for the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in Miranda v. Arizona) applies to custodial interviews. The cliché scene of a cop snarling Miranda warnings the minute the suspect is handcuffed is not the way police Mirandize. To do so would create an adversarial approach, lessening the chances of the subject being cooperative. Moreover, there’s no reason to Mirandize if there’s no interview.

Whether or not an interview is custodial for the purposes of determining if Miranda warnings are required is not as straightforward as asking whether or not the person is under arrest. It’s possible to not be under arrest, yet be in custody. Here is the 3-pronged test to establish whether or not the interview was custodial:

∙ What did the officer believe (about whether or not the subject was free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject in the back of a patrol car (from which he could not let himself out)? The officer knows that person is not really free to leave at any time; the interview is custodial and Miranda is required.

∙ What did the interviewee believe (about whether or not he was free to leave at any time)? Was the interviewee in a police station behind locked doors? If he was escorted deep within the building and doesn’t feel free to leave, Miranda is required.

∙ What would a reasonable person believe (about whether or not a person in that situation would feel free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject first told by the police officer to sit down on the park bench? Maybe the officer is standing over the person now, asking questions. A reasonable person could find that custodial.

Second, there’s nothing magic about a police officer giving the Miranda warning; the key is that the interview subject must waive Miranda rights before being questioned. The 3-prong test for a clean waiver of the Miranda rights is a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiving of the right to not talk and to not have an attorney present. If the officer read Miranda but the interview subject never waived his rights, then anything learned in the interview could be suppressed or not admissible in court because there was no waiver.

Of course, a writer can use good information to develop a story in any direction. Want the cop to be incompetent? Have him scream Miranda at the arrestee, scaring the subject right out of talking to a cop with an aggressive attitude. Want the cop to be dirty? Have him bait the guy into talking then turn on a recorder and catch what he says without benefit of a Miranda advisement and waiver. Want good procedure? Follow good procedure. Use reliable resources to clarify the legal rules that apply to your fiction. Leslie’s guide, Books, Crooks and Counselors, is an excellent resource, one I recommend to all writers. For details that touch on all senses in a given police scenario, talk to officers who have been in similar situations. We’re happy to share experiences with writers who want to strengthen their stories.

LisaPreston_01With one semester to go in high school, Lisa Preston moved to Alaska and almost immediately began mountain climbing. To improve her first aid knowledge, she took an Emergency Medical Technician course, which included ride-alongs on the Fire Department’s Advanced Life Support ambulances. She moved to Oregon for training and was soon back in Alaska, pulling 24-hour shifts as a paramedic.

After a number of years, she transferred to the Police Department. Her second career started with the position of street officer and she still claims it is the most demanding job in law enforcement. Faced with a choice between K-9 and detectives (she’d trained protection and tracking dogs), she became a detective, working in the Vice unit  and later in Crimes Against Children, with a special assignment as a Hostage Negotiator. She went back to the street as a sergeant, and eventually returned to investigations, supervising Internal Affairs.

She teaches three writing workshops (The Query Class; The Right Rewrite; Ambulances, Badges and Courtrooms). She’s an ultrarunner and rides solo for long distance on her AKhal Teke horses, exploring in the backcountry.

Her publishing credits include nonfiction on the care and training of animals Her thriller, ORCHIDS AND STONE, will be released in trade paperback, e-book and audiobook in April 2016. Connect with her on her website, http://www.lisapreston.com 

Miranda: A Refresher

Like so much in life, legal errors in fiction seem to run in streaks. Errors in several recent reads prompt this refresher on Miranda rights and warnings.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you at government expense.”

US Supreme CourtIn Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court decided several cases from around the country that raised a critical issue: Must a suspect be warned of his rights before being interrogated? Which rights? Under what circumstances? And what are the consequences if he isn’t warned? The Court said the Constitution requires that suspects in custody be informed of their right to silence–grounded in the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, that anything they do say could be used against them, and that they have the right to counsel. Only if the suspect understood those rights and voluntarily waived them can statements made during custodial interrogation be used against the suspect in court.

A noteworthy exception to the warning mandate is the “public safety exception” of New York v. Quarles (1984), where officer or public safety is at risk.

The Supreme Court decided two Miranda cases in 2010. In Maryland v. Shatzer, the suspect requested a lawyer and questioning stopped; fourteen days later, he was taken into custody, waived his right to counsel, and voluntarily confessed. His initial request for counsel did not bar the later interrogation or prevent an effective waiver.

In Berghuis v. Thompkins, the Court held 5-4 that once a suspect has been warned, he must specifically invoke his right to silence—an explicit waiver is not required—and that a brief response amounting to a confession will be taken as a waiver and will be admissible. The Michigan detectives asked Thompkins if he prayed to God, and when he said yes, they asked him if he prayed for forgiveness for “shooting that boy down;” yes, again. That, the majority held, was a choice to respond, and thus to waive the right to silence. The result of the decision may be that police will continue to question suspects who remain silent after being warned, hoping to increase the likelihood of an eventual response. Keep in mind, though, that some states may hold otherwise under their constitutions, and individual police departments may require explicit waivers.

Keys for writers to remember about Miranda warnings:
• only suspects in custody are entitled to warnings;
• warnings are required only before interrogation—that is, questioning;
• voluntary statements not made under questioning are admissible;
• a suspect who’s been warned can waive his rights and agree to be questioned;
• it’s the substance of the warning—not the exact language—that matters. But most law enforcement departments require officers to use standard language to prevent later disputes over what was said.

Consider this scenario, looking first at custody: Police ask a man to come to headquarters to talk about the disappearance of a child in his neighborhood. He agrees, drives his own car, and is interviewed in an unlocked office; everyone is cordial and it’s clear that he’s free to leave any time. He’s not in custody.

Contrast this with the same man ordered to get in the back of a police car, which then takes off; he hasn’t been told he can’t leave, but under the circumstances, he’s not reasonably likely to believe that he can.

Now let’s look at interrogation. In the interview room, two officers tell him they’re waiting for a photograph to be printed. They don’t warn him. Meanwhile, they discuss the scene they’ve just left, the blood, the horror, and wonder out loud what kind of person would do such a thing. What kind of warped mind, what kind of terrible childhood, and so on. Squirming, the man finally blurts out, “You leave my mother out of this. She had nothing to do with me killing that girl.” He then breaks down in tears and tells the whole story. No interrogation, just a conversation between two officers—maybe with the goal of provoking a response, or maybe not. After analyzing all the facts, the judge may conclude that the suspect was not in custody, and never consider whether he was interrogated. If the facts establish custody, the judge will consider whether the statement was a voluntary, spontaneous response to the officers’ conversation, or whether it amounted to an interrogation. That decision determines whether his statements are admissible or must be suppressed.

US Supreme Court - Lady JusticeUS Supreme CourtWhat if the suspect was warned first? Analysis will focus on whether his statements were coerced, and therefore inadmissible, or made voluntarily with full knowledge of his rights. The facts make all the difference.

Assume the suspect requests a lawyer, either before or after his confession, but keeps talking. The lawyer will move to suppress, to determine whether the additional statements are admissible, under the analysis just described.

Remember that arrest alone does not create an obligation to warn a suspect. Failure to warn does not require dismissal of charges, although it may result in a suppression of evidence obtained through improper interrogation.

By changing the setting, the age, sex, race and even the size of the suspect and officers, the time of day, how long the suspect remains in custody, and of course, what’s said, you can add more tension and complexity to your plot. Is the conversation on a street corner at mid-day, or in a small gray room in the basement of the police station? Is the suspect sixteen or forty-five? Is the door open or shut? Do the officers come and go, take bathroom breaks, eat and drink—but offer the suspect nothing? Is his agreement to waive his rights threatened or coerced, or has he been treated with basic human decency? If the suspect is likely to talk, nothing will shut him up faster than being warned; suspects watch TV, too, and of course, many have been through the drill before. Is your story better served by a silent suspect or a talkative one, by wrangling over admissibility of a confession, or by going to trial quickly?

The Miranda decision, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, isn’t easy reading, but it is fascinating. A former prosecutor himself, Warren rightly believed that prosecutors have a responsibility to protect individual rights and ensure fair trials as well as to prosecute crime. Your fictional prosecutor and detectives might agree, or shade the line.
Writers of historicals, remember that attitudes about the rights of the accused changed significantly in the 1960s. Miranda was a 5-4 decision, and controversial, even though the FBI and some states already used similar warnings.

Miranda*** Who was Miranda? Ernesto Miranda was convicted of rape and kidnaping, based on his confession and the victim’s identification. He was not advised of his right to counsel or to silence, although the written confession form included a preprinted statement that he knew his rights and that his statements could be used against him. After the Supreme Court decision, he was retried, without the confession, and again convicted, based on eyewitness testimony and the testimony of his common law wife, with whom he was in a custody battle over their daughter, that he had admitted the rape to her. Miranda was released in 1972 and returned to prison for a time in 1974. While out, he sold signed Miranda cards for $1.50 each. He was stabbed to death in 1976 at age at 34 in a bar fight; no one was charged.  ***

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Adapted from Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), by Leslie Budewitz, winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.