Vol. 25 No. 8- No Magic Words For “Miranda” Warnings


April 20, 2010

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that, although it is necessary to ensure that a suspect is told of his/her right to consult with an attorney before questioning begins, there is no “precise formulation necessary to meet Miranda’s requirements.”

In the case of Florida v. Powell, the Court, in a 7 – 2 decision, held that when a suspect has been told that he has “the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of the [law enforcement officers’] questions,” and that he can invoke this right “at any time … during the interview,” the requirements of Miranda are satisfied.

After Powell had been arrested, he was given an abbreviated Miranda warning and admitted to owning a handgun found by the police.  He was charged with possession of a weapon as a convicted felon.  After the trial court denied his motion to suppress his statement, he was convicted.

Under both the Florida state constitution and in Miranda v. Arizona, a suspect must be clearly informed of the right to have a lawyer present during questioning.  The Florida appellate court held that the advice Powell received before his interrogation was misleading because, although it suggested that he could consult with an attorney before the police started questioning him, it did not convey his entitlement to counsel being present throughout the interrogation.  As a result, the Florida appellate courts and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that his statement should have been suppressed.

Since Florida relied upon Miranda, as well Florida’s state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded it had jurisdiction to hear the case and held that, basically, there are no magic words needed.  “[T]his Court has not dictated the words in which the essential information must be conveyed.”  In determining whether the warnings given are satisfactory, “the inquiry is simply whether the warnings reasonably ‘convey to a suspect his rights as required by Miranda.’ ”

Since Powell had been told by Tampa police officers that he had “the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of [their] questions,” and that he had “the right to use any of [his] rights at any time [he] wanted during the interview,” the Court ruled that the two warnings informed him that he was entitled to have an attorney present at the outset of the interrogation and at all times during the interrogation.

Concerns Of Manipulation By Law Enforcement

In addressing the concern that this rule could result in ambiguity the Court said no such motivation exists.  “[A]s the Federal Government explains, it is in law enforcement’s own interest to state warnings with maximum clarity in order to reduce the risk that a court will later find the advice inadequate and therefore suppress a suspect’s statement.”

The Court further notes that although the “standard warnings” used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which clearly state that an attorney can be present during the questioning, “are admirably informative,” different words can communicate the same message.

In a dissenting opinion, Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Bryer disagreed that the U.S. Supreme Court had jurisdiction over the case.  They found that the decision was based exclusively on the State Constitution and not on Miranda.  “[W]e have no power to assume jurisdiction that does not otherwise exist simply because the Florida Supreme Court did not include in its decision some express statement that its interpretation of state law is independent.”

Additionally, the dissent found that “in this case, the form regularly used by the Tampa police warned Powell that he had the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of [their] questions.  This informed him only of the right to consult with a lawyer before questioning, the very right theMiranda Court identified as insufficient to protect the Fifth Amendment privilege.”

Furthermore, “this is … the first time the court has approved a warning which, if given its natural reading, entirely omitted an essential element of a suspect’s rights.”


This is now the second, recent, U. S. Supreme Court decision modifying long standing Mirandarequirements.  On February 24, 2010, in the case of Maryland v. Shatzer, the Court held that officers can re-contact and re-interrogate suspects despite the fact that they previously invokedMiranda and refused to talk with police without counsel being present.  [See Jones & Mayer, Client Alert Memo from March 1, 2010.]

Although this case held that law enforcement is not restricted to any specific wording, as long as the intent of Miranda is conveyed, it should be noted that Florida law enforcement agencies no longer use this abbreviated version of the Miranda warnings.  The state prosecutors, following the court of appeal opinions, issued a revised form which now makes it clear that the right to the presence of an attorney exists before and during questioning.

If an agency deviates from the standard form of Miranda warnings, it is opening the door to challenge.  Although this case can be cited as justification for such modification, it would be incumbent on the agency to prove that the change did not mislead the suspect and, in fact, conveyed the “essential information” required under Miranda.

Unless there is some significant benefit and/or reason to make such a change, it is
hard to imagine why it would be done.  However, as in all matters involving the law, it is necessary to confer with your agency’s legal counsel and secure his or her advice and guidance before undertaking such action.

As always, if you wish to discuss this in greater detail, please do not hesitate to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.