I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard medical examiners and members of law enforcement say that solving crime in the real world is nothing like what we see on television. Cop shows make for great entertainment, but they also tend to become the sources of widespread misconceptions about police procedures. In this week’s Killer Nashville guest blog, Neal Griffin gives us a working cop’s point-of-view on the most famously misrepresented law enforcement obligation: reading the Miranda rights.
Read like they are burning books!
By Neal Griffin
Great crime fiction weaves an intricate plot, driven by hard-hitting, gritty characters. Cops and crooks who know how to act and how to talk are central to a dramatic tale.
But how important is it for the writer to get the procedural details correct? Is it necessary to properly describe how a cop stands in a stranger’s house? Or to understand why crooks dig through the trash for receipts of small but expensive items? If the reader is none the wiser, maybe details like these aren’t so critical. But if you want your story to ring true, or you’re just looking to avoid a nasty email from someone who loves nothing more than finding flaws and going public, read on.
Perhaps no single police procedure is more misunderstood than a Miranda warning. Over the years, I’ve had plenty of smirking crooks in the back of my car, who let me know that my failure to advise them of their rights will be my undoing. “You screwed up, cop,” they tell me. “Everybody knows you gotta read me my rights.” Even the most inebriated drunk can recite the opening lines, though perhaps a bit slurred, and accented with a few timely belches: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will…”
A cop with just a few months of street experience is pretty savvy when it comes to avoiding Miranda. Don’t get me wrong. The law is the law; you read ’em when you have to. But most cops tend to avoid reminding someone they just arrested that it might be a good idea for them to keep their mouth shut. Working around Miranda is pretty basic in the real world, so good crime fiction should reflect that.
The rule of thumb is this: custody + interrogation = Miranda. If either is missing, no Miranda warning is necessary. So while a Hollywood cop who reads Miranda as they’re putting on the cuffs might create a good scene for television, it would be more realistic to portray a cop who works around the Miranda warning, by not creating a “custodial interrogation”.
The issue of interrogation is pretty straightforward: if an officer initiates any questioning that can illicit incriminating information, it will qualify. The issue of custody can be tricky, because it’s largely subjective. If you create a scene where a half-dozen armed and uniformed cops are standing over a guy who tried to rip off a jewelry store, he’s in custody from a legal standpoint. The subjective point being, he might not be handcuffed or under arrest, but he probably doesn’t exactly feel free to get up and leave.
The savvy cop, created by the educated crime fiction writer, would take that suspect off to the side, and put them at ease. Instead of immediately pulling out the cuffs, the officer might break the ice with personal introductions and a short conversation about the weather. Then, in a relaxed and genteel manner, he might say something like, “So tell me, what happened before we got here? The storeowner says you tried to rip him off. Is that true?”
Now, the crook probably isn’t going to tell the truth—they generally struggle with that—but you can bet he’ll say something. Or, in cop jargon, he’ll “lock himself into a story”, which sometimes is as good as a confession. But at the minimum, the conversation is underway without a pesky Miranda warning.
Save your Miranda warnings for interrogations in places like station houses with locked doors and holding cells with bars over the windows. Otherwise, write it right and let your cops do their jobs like they would in the real world.
Neal Griffin’s debut crime novel, Benefit of the Doubt, was released by Forge Books on May 12 and went immediately to No. 8 on the L.A. Times bestseller list. Praised for his gritty and authentic voice, Griffin remains a working cop in Southern California. His next book, A Voice From the Field, is scheduled for release by Forge in the spring of 2016, and will once again feature the police characters of Ben Sawyer and Tia Suarez. In the words of bestselling author Andrew Gross, “Griffin is the new kid in town, and he is here to stay.” Neal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and is happy to answer questions on police procedures, but he’s of little use when it comes to beating a traffic ticket.
(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks to Tom Wood, Maria Giordano, Will Chessor, Emily Eytchison, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog. And for more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com, www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com, and www.KillerNashvilleBookCon.com.)