What is custodial interrogation?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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In the U.S., if an individual is in the custody of law enforcement officers while undergoing interrogation, this is usually known as a custodial interrogation. Custodial interrogation is a relatively simple concept, but the laws that accompany this term are complex. Consult an experienced criminal law attorney with any specific questions about custodial interrogations.

How Does a Custodial Interrogation Work?

While US citizens have certain protections, you can be questioned by the police if you’re suspected in a crime. When police take you into custody, you might expect them to read you your rights starting with the rights to remain silent and have an attorney. Once the questioning begins, this is a custodial interrogation. The term custody usually refers to situations in which that the person has been placed under formal arrest or circumstances in which the person’s freedom of action has been so restrained that the situation has risen to the level of a formal arrest.

The U.S. Supreme Court considers an interrogation to be a custodial interrogation if “a reasonable person would have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interview and leave.” This reasonable person standard means that the interrogation is not characterized by the individual’s or the police officer’s personal feelings about whether or not the individual was in custody. If a reasonable person in the same situation would not feel free to leave the scene, it could be considered interrogation.

Before questioning an individual in custody, the officer must provide a Miranda warning to inform the person of his or her right to an attorney during the questioning process. The Miranda warning also informs individuals that anything they say can be used against them in a court of law. Some would say you only have to worry if you’re guilty of something. Others suggest asking or a lawyer and not speaking until they’re there any time you are arrested. You may say things or agree to things that seem benign to you at the time only to find them being used against you later on. A lie detector test is a common example as it measures stress, not necessarily truthfulness.

Even in a non-custodial situation, it is best to have a lawyer present for even a routine interview to protect your constitutional rights if there is even a remote chance you could be a suspect. Be aware that there is always an electronic recording of interrogations, and these video recordings could be used against you in the courts if you become a defendant. The criminal justice system is designed with many protections for defendants, but many don’t know how to use them. Unfortunately, this continues to lead to many wrongful convictions.

Whether or not a person is in custody and has been informed of their Miranda rights is significant. If a law enforcement officer fails to read individuals their Miranda rights while taking them into custody, this can mean that any confessions or information obtained during the ensuing custodial interrogation cannot be used in court. However, this is not always the case. Law enforcement can find other means of using this evidence in court, especially if they possess other evidence of the crime.

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What are my rights during a custodial interrogation?

Anytime the police talk to you, you have rights. best thing to do even is to call an attorney and wait for them. While you may be perfectly innocent, coercive interrogations don’t always lead to the truth. Police in many states are allowed to make false statements to mislead suspects. A police interrogation may also look very different in Rhode Island vs. North Carolina.

Keep in mind, you can be interrogated even if you are not at the police station or courthouse. You can ask for an attorney even if they have not formally read you your rights. Most often, a confession or any other form of evidence obtained during a custodial interrogation cannot be used in court if law enforcement continues to question or coerce you after you have invoked. It is important to know, however, that even after you waive your right to an attorney, you can invoke this right again at any time. The request must be explicit, and not ambiguous. If it is ambiguous, the police may usually continue the interrogation without violating your Miranda rights.

A peace officer cannot torture you, but they can detain you for long periods. They cannot force you to make a statement or lead you with facts about their case. A confession could be invalidated in these cases, especially if it’s not seen as a voluntary statement. They are given some leeway, though.

Can an Attorney Help If I’ve Already Confessed?

Some defendants end up in court due to false or unintentional confessions. In some cases, their words are misinterpreted or they’re led to a confession they wouldn’t make on their own. In other cases, police have been known to take advantage of the mentally handicapped or others (whether intentionally or unintentionally), leading them to incriminating statements regarding crimes they did not commit.

Even if you confessed and are willing to plead guilty, an attorney can protect your rights and look out for your best interests. This could mean introducing any extenuating circumstances before, during, or after the crime and confession. It could also mean representing you in sentencing proceedings.

You can pay for your own attorney. If you cannot afford one, government agents acting as public attorneys can serve at low or no cost up to and during a criminal trial. The idea is to ensure everyone has a fair trial within certain standards.

If you’re in need of legal counsel, you have options open. Whatever your circumstances, always make sure to get a criminal defense attorney experienced in the right areas for your case.

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