Mar 09, 2010

Miranda Warnings for Grammarians

As you probably know, unless police officers issue "Miranda Warnings" to suspects before interrogating them, whatever suspects say is generally inadmissible in evidence against them at trial.  One of the warnings is that "you have the right to have an attorney present when we question you."

In the case of Florida v. Powell (2010), police officers told Powell that "you have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions" and that "you can use this right anytime you want to during the interview."  7 of the 9 U.S. Supreme Court justices upheld Powell's conviction, ruling that the warning adequately conveyed the message that Powell was entitled to the presence of a lawyer during questioning.  Two justices (Stevens and Breyer) disagreed, arguing that the officers' words didn't clearly tell Powell that he had a right to have an attorney present during (and not just before) questioning.  

The dissenters seem overly picky.  But the fact that the issue made it all the way to the Supreme Court is a reminder that language can be ambiguous.  In a country filled with native speakers ffrom non-English speaking countries, courts should make sure that police officers explain rights clearly.