If you are like most Texans, you think you have the obligation to answer any question a law enforcement officer asks you, whenever and wherever (s)he may ask it. Nothing could be further from the truth. While you must provide identification any time an officer asks you for it, you need not answer any additional questions unless and until you have an attorney right by your side.
Your best strategy consists of never volunteering information to officers, even if you think declining to answer their questions makes you seem uncooperative. However, consider this: Would you rather officers perceive you as uncooperative or would you rather they twist what you tell them into alleged evidence against you in a criminal investigation?
Your Miranda rights
You likely have heard the Miranda warning in numerous movies and TV shows, so you know it consists of the following four parts:
- 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 an attorney.
- If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
What you probably fail to realize, however, is that the law requires officers to “read you your rights” only when they arrest you, not before. Consequently, if they are in the process of conducting a criminal investigation and consider you only a person of interest, such as someone they believe was near or at the scene of a suspected crime, they need not inform you of your Miranda rights. They can, nevertheless, and probably will use anything you voluntarily tell them against you.
Most people do not know that they always have their Miranda rights even though Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case that first addressed these rights, made them applicable to law enforcement officers only after they arrested a criminal suspect.
What you need to know, however, is that your Miranda rights flow from your following constitutional rights:
- Your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures on the part of governmental officials
- Your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination
- Your Sixth Amendment right to have an attorney present any time officers question you
Asserting your rights
It goes without saying that you should never “mouth off” to a law enforcement officer or do anything that (s)he could consider as your resisting arrest, even if you believe that arrest is unreasonable. But you should always assert your Miranda rights, albeit it in a calm, respectful manner, whenever you find yourself facing police questioning. They and their constitutional underpinnings are there to protect you. Never voluntarily give them up and talk to officers without your attorney present.