Florida v. Powell Essay

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Whenever police wish to question a suspect who is in custody, the suspect must first be given four warnings, commonly referred to as the Miranda warnings: (1) you have the right to remain silent; (2) anything you say can be used against you in court; (3) you have the right to the presence of an attorney; and (4) if you wish to have an attorney but cannot afford to hire one, the court will appoint an attorney for you before you are subject to any questioning. These warnings help citizens to understand and exercise their Fifth and Sixth Amendment constitutional rights, but they can also inhibit law enforcement officers’ ability to question suspects. This is because once a suspect invokes these rights, the interrogation has to stop. The question that the U.S. Supreme Court had to answer in Florida v Powell (2010) involved the language police must use when informing a suspect of their rights.

Powell was a suspect in a robbery investigation. Police went to his girlfriend’s apartment and when they searched the room he was in, they found a loaded handgun. Powell was a convicted felon, and it was illegal for him to possess a handgun. He was arrested and taken to police headquarters. Before questioning him, the officers gave him a version of the Miranda warnings. The warnings did not tell him that he had a right to have an attorney with him during the interrogation. Powell agreed to waive his rights and answer questions. He admitted the gun was his.

Prior to trial, Powell asked the trial court not to allow his statements to be used as evidence against him because he was not given proper Miranda warnings. The trial court refused his request and he was convicted on the handgun charge. Powell appealed.

The Florida Supreme Court held that the warnings that police gave Powell were misleading because they seemed to say that he could talk to an attorney before questioning, but not that he could have an attorney with him during questioning. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Florida Supreme Court’ decision, holding that the warnings were sufficient to protect Powell’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.

The reason the Supreme Court has held that people be informed of their right to have an attorney with them during interrogation is because when one is in custody and only has contact with police officers, it can be hard to understand and invoke one’s constitutional rights. In particular, the court was concerned with a suspect’s right to not say anything that could harm his or her own interests.

Hence, the court maintained that officers inform suspects of their rights whenever they are going to question a person who is in custody. However, the court has never held that officers use any particular words in giving the warnings. As long as the warnings reasonably communicate the person’s rights, the warnings are sufficient. (Duckworth v. Eagan, 1989).

The majority of the court held that the warnings did not entirely omit the notice that Powell could have an attorney with him during questioning. They pointed out that he was told he could talk with an attorney before answering any questions and that he could exercise that right whenever he wanted to. The court held that the warnings “reasonably conveyed” Powell’s rights and therefore were sufficient.

Justice John Paul Stevens dissented. He argued that the suspect who is in custody should be clearly informed that he has a right to have an attorney with him throughout questioning. He agreed that the form of the warnings need not be perfect, but argued that this case was the first time that the court approved a warning that omitted one of the four key rights referred to in the Miranda decision.

The Miranda decision was controversial from its inception. Proponents argue that citizens’ right to an attorney and their protection against self-incrimination are at their most vulnerable when in government custody and subject to interrogation. Advising citizens of their rights is the necessary safeguard against police overreaching. Opponents argue that, by advising suspects of their rights, police are effectively ending many interrogations, which leads to an inevitable loss of important evidence. In 2013, this issue sparked a national debate when a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing was taken into custody and law enforcement delayed reading him his Miranda warnings for several days in order to elicit as much information as possible from the suspect. Law enforcement and courts must balance the individual’s constitutional right to counsel and protection from compelled self-incrimination against society’s interest in effective evidence collection and in obtaining the suspect’s confessions and admissions.

Powell adds a twist to the Miranda debate because the police did not explicitly tell the suspect that he could have an attorney with him throughout questioning. In previous decisions, the court had allowed deviations in the language that officers used to convey the rights, but had never approved an advisement that did not explicitly state all four warnings. This case raises the important question officers must face every day: Should the officer strive to protect the suspect’s constitutional rights or should the officer do everything in his or her power to gather evidence? If the answer is the former, then the officer should strive to clearly and accurately convey the Miranda warnings in a manner that ensures the suspect understands the rights and is able to exercise them. If the answer is the latter, Powell arguably clears the way for officers to introduce ambiguity into the Miranda warnings, which could encourage suspects to waive their rights and speak to police when they perhaps ought to be speaking with their attorney instead.


  1. “Florida v. Powell.” The Oyez Project. Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago-Kent College of Law. http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2009/2009_08_1175 (Accessed September 2013).
  2. Manning, Peter K. “Police: Mandate, Strategies, and Appearances.” Police and Society: Touchstone Readings. 2nd ed. Victor Kappeler, ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1999.
  3. Stuart, Gary L. Miranda: The Story of America’s Right to Remain Silent. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.

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