The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled recently in a child molestation case on an issue involving Miranda warnings. We are all familiar with the Miranda language from police and court dramas on TV, and many of us can even recite them as well as a police officer. If you are arrested, or are just brought in for questioning as a suspect, law enforcement must give you that warning. They must also give it at the point where you become a suspect during questioning.
In the case of State v. Nyhammer , the defendant was brought in for questioning not as a suspect, but as a witness in the investigation of his uncle for the molestation of a child. Prior to the interview, he was given a Miranda warning. During the interview, the detective mentioned that the victim had implicated Nyhammer, and Nyhammer confessed.
After his conviction, he appealed, stating that his Miranda warnings should have been renewed at the point where he went from being witness to suspect. The appeals court reversed the conviction, but the Supreme Court affirmed it, stating "generally . . . once a defendant has been apprised of his constitutional rights, no repetition of these rights is required."
What is more interesting about this opinion is how it will play out in the future. Police officers could potentially Mirandize everyone they interview in a crime investigation "just to be on the safe side," so that if the questioning of that witness leads to them being a suspect, they are covered. The problem with that is that investigations can turn into interrogations with little or no warning.
Witnesses can become targets of the investigation without realizing it or without knowing that now would be a good time to ask for a lawyer. The courts seem to be saying here, "You knew you were entitled to a lawyer when they Mirandized you an hour and a half ago," but in the meantime the defendant may have said something incriminating without knowing it, and by then it is too late.
On the other hand, police may not "Mirandize on spec" because that can have a tendency to make a witness skittish and "lawyer up," thus hampering or delaying the investigation. Like any court opinion, though, it is subject to further examination and "tweaking" under the facts of any particular case brought before the court. Like many trends in the law, this one bears watching.