Jersey City, New Jersey – On January 4, 2021 the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division issued a potentially landmark decision in State of New Jersey v. Anthony Sims, Jr. The court held law enforcement must inform a person it wishes to question of the potential charges against him/her before a Miranda waiver will be considered valid. For decades, law enforcement has been required to administer Miranda warnings to people in custody in order to use the answers to law enforcement’s questions as evidence in court. Those warnings have included the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, the right to appointed counsel if unable to afford an attorney and the right to stop questioning at any time. This decision adds the requirement to inform subject of an interrogation of the potential charges.
The rationale for the decision is that a person cannot knowingly waive his or her rights if s/he does not know why s/he was arrested the waiver cannot be knowing. This makes sense because a person could think, or be led to believe, s/he is being questioned about something innocuous or minor, but really be facing an investigation and charges into a serious crime.
In Sims, the defendant was arrested as the suspect of an attempted murder investigation in which a person was shot multiple times. While providing Miranda warnings, the detectives told Sims he was under arrest for assault, but did not tell him he was under arrest for firearms related charges or attempted murder, both of which are more serious charges than assault. During the interrogation Sims confirmed details about him that had been provided by the victim including his girlfriend’s identity and who his brother was. During the interrogation, Sims asked to make a phone call, which police allowed him to do. They then seized his phone. The police were able to use the phone to confirm Sims’s whereabouts at the time of the shooting.
Sims filed a motion to suppress his statement to the police. The trial court denied the motion and allowed his statement to be used as evidence against him at trial. The Appellate Division reversed for the reasons already explained. The court also spent time addressing the significance of the fact that police had already arrested Sims. Thus, there is still the potential for police in future investigations to try to circumvent the requirement to advise a suspect of the potential charges by conducting the interrogation prior to making an official arrest. This is a potentially a significant loophole, but not necessarily one entirely defined by whether the police tell a suspect he is under arrest. Miranda has always only applied to persons in custody. Custody is defined as not being free to leave. If future interrogations are conducted without officially arresting a suspect, challenges will have to be made based on the circumstances of the questioning and whether the suspect was in fact free to leave, as well as whether the suspect believed s/he was free to leave. Regardless of any potential loophole, this decision is an important one for protecting people’s rights and ensuring those answering police questions have knowingly waived their rights.