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Understanding your Miranda rights

Hopefully you will never find yourself in a situation where a Colorado law enforcement officer wants to question you about a criminal or potentially criminal matter. If and when such an occasion arises, however, you need to know that you do not have to answer the officer's questions unless and until you have a criminal defense attorney by your side to protect your rights.

People, especially innocent people, often make the mistake of thinking that they must answer an officer's questions whenever asked to do so. This is not true. Obviously, it is never in your best interests to "mouth off" or argue with an officer, but it also is never in your best interests to voluntarily divulge information, other than identification information such as your name and address, to an officer. What you should do instead is respectfully decline to answer his or her questions until after you speak with an attorney.

The Miranda warning

You likely have heard about the Miranda warning, but you may be unclear about what it means and why it is important to you. Basically, the Miranda warning has the following four elements:

  1. You have the right to remain silent.
  2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
  3. You have the right to an attorney.
  4. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.

All four statements are true and all four are the law of the land. The U.S. Supreme Court made this clear in the landmark 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona. Consequently, law enforcement officers must "read you your rights" whenever they arrest you.

Your pre-arrest rights

The only problem with the Miranda warning is that the law does not require officers to tell you about your rights before they arrest you. Nevertheless, you have those rights at all times, whether you are under arrest or not. The reason is because of your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and your Sixth Amendment right to counsel if and when you face criminal charges.

So the question becomes, do you face criminal charges prior to your arrest? The answer is "not exactly." If the officers know that a crime or a possible crime occurred, but do not know who the perpetrator was, naturally they begin to investigate. They want to find the culprit, so they try to question anyone and everyone who was in the vicinity of the alleged crime. If you happen to be one of these people, this means you are a "person of interest." The officers may have a hunch that you had something to do with the alleged crime, but they do not yet have enough evidence to arrest you and charge you with it. They are more than happy to give you the chance to volunteer information to them that gives them the probable cause they need to arrest and charge you.

Under these circumstances, why would you voluntarily give them any information that might incriminate you? Just because you know you are innocent does not mean that everything you say will "prove" that innocence. It may not. Neither may your demeanor or your perceived attitude. Remember, the officers are looking for a suspect. They may decide you "look guilty" or "act guilty," even if you do not specifically incriminate yourself by something you inadvertently say.

The point is, you are in a precarious situation whether you realize it or not. Remember that your constitutional rights are there for a reason, and that reason is to protect you. Never waive your rights and give up your protections by voluntarily talking to law enforcement officers unless your attorney is present.

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