Why You May Not Have As Many Rights as You Think

The Miranda warning is a widely known, well-recognized application of our Constitutional rights as US Citizens. While it provides us with a reminder that we don’t have to incriminate ourselves and that we have a right to counsel it can be a bit misleading, especially in traffic cases. One part of the warning that people often misunderstand is the part that says that you are entitled to have an attorney present while being questioned. But questioning isn’t always immediate and in traffic cases, might not ever happen. The other confusing and misleading part of the warning is the line that tells us that if we cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for us. This isn’t always true and having an attorney in traffic cases can be critical for low-income individuals whose livelihoods rely on their ability to legally drive.

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.

You have a right to talk to a lawyer and have him or her present with you while you are being questioned.

If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish.

You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.

We’ve all heard it so many times on TV and movies that you could probably recite most of it from memory. The recitation of rights read to a person being placed under arrest in the US in known as the Miranda warning because of the famous 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the legal requirement for such a warning, Miranda v. Arizona. In the Miranda decision, the US Supreme Court analyzed 4 separate cases wherein Defendants confessed to crimes after being interrogated by police over long periods of time without being made aware of their rights.

The Court was presented with the question of whether “statements obtained from an individual who is subjected to custodial police interrogation” are admissible in a criminal trial against him, and whether “procedures which assure that the individual is accorded his privilege under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution not to be compelled to incriminate himself” are needed.

The Court held that 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination do apply “outside of criminal court proceedings and serves to protect persons in all settings in which their freedom of action is curtailed in any significant way from being compelled to incriminate themselves.” Because of this, the Court said that “without proper safeguards the process of in-custody interrogation of persons suspected or accused of crime contains inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual’s will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would otherwise do so freely,” and that a defendant “must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.”

You don’t always get to talk to an attorney right away.

But there are a couple parts of the famous warning that can get a bit confusing. The first part that confuses people when they’re under arrest is in this line: You have a right to talk to a lawyer and have him or her present with you while you are being questioned. The part I put in bold is what I’m talking about. You might think you have a right to be in contact with a lawyer right away, but if the police don’t intend to question you, they don’t have to get you in touch with a lawyer as soon as you’re arrested. And some questions they ask might not count as the type that require the presence of a lawyer, so you may not get to call anyone until after a lengthy booking process. Questions about your identity during booking, such as your name, date of birth, address, and emergency contact info aren’t things that you need a lawyer present for. It’s important during these times that you do not volunteer incriminating information. Your right to have an attorney present while being questioned doesn’t keep officers from hearing what you say when you aren’t under interrogation. If you aren’t able to contact an attorney right away while in police custody, remember to exercise your very important right to remain silent.

You Don’t Always Have a Right To Court-Appointed Counsel

The second part that is confusing, and also a bit misleading, is in this line: If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish. In the famous Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainright, the Court held that people facing criminal prosecution with a chance of imprisonment have the right to be represented by counsel even if they can’t afford an attorney. But in a lot of traffic cases in Missouri, the consequences you’re likely to face don’t include time in jail.

If you have ever faced traffic ticket charges in Missouri and went to court to ask the judge to appoint you an attorney, you probably didn’t get one. That’s because the rule in Missouri applying the principals from Gideon only require the appointment of counsel for people who can’t afford attorneys in cases where jail time is a possibility. This may seem like a fair way to deal with an overloaded system (public defenders have enormous case loads and the PD system is grossly underfunded), but it leaves a lot of Missouri citizens in an extremely tough spot.

Even though a case may not result in jail time, there are many types of traffic tickets that can have far reaching consequences on a person’s life. Expensive consequences that can trap people in a vicious cycle of not being able to drive legally, but needing to drive so that they can work to pay off their court fines and fees.

Here’s an example (and this isn’t far-fetched, it happens all the time): say someone just bought a used cheap car on Craigslist because they needed something to get them to and from work but were on an extremely tight budget. When they go to get the car tagged, they find out there’s a problem that has to be fixed before the car will pass an inspection. They can’t afford to fix it without going to work, so they drive to and from work on bad tags so they can save up money to get the car fixed and tagged. On their way to work the very first day, they get pulled over and are issued a ticket to failure to register. They don’t have the money to pay the failure to register ticket, so they want to go ask the judge for more time, but court is set for a day when they have to be at work, so they miss their court date. Since they’ve missed their court date, the court sends in a Failure to Appear notice to the Missouri Department of Revenue (DOR). The DOR suspends their license for the failure to appear. A couple weeks later, they get pulled over and get another Failure to Register ticket, and this time they also get a ticket for Driving While Suspended. Realizing things have gotten out of hand, they finally have the money to get their car fixed and have it registered. They appear at the next court date and the judge tells them they can’t appoint an attorney for them because no jail time is being sought. The person decides to just go ahead and pay their fines, not knowing that paying their fines on a Driving While Suspended ticket will automatically result in 12 points on their driving record. And those twelve points, they result in an automatic one-year revocation of their driving privilege. They still have to go to work. And they have no choice but to drive to get there. Guess what happens next?

If you find yourself in this type of situation, or if you’re facing any traffic charge in a court in Missouri, it’s a good idea to talk to an attorney and find out how and if they can help. At Skilled Law, we have a great deal of experience helping people in similar situations. We keep our fees low and can provide valuable services to people facing traffic charges. Oftentimes we can avoid having points assessed against you and can help get your license reinstated if you’ve got failure to appear suspensions or other types of holds on your license. Learn more here.