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Applying Miranda To Child Sex Crime Investigations

Most people are familiar with the Miranda warnings. But police do not need to use these warnings every time they speak with a suspect. The Miranda decision only applies when a suspect undergoes "custodial interrogation". In other words, when a reasonable person would not feel that they were free to leave.

A recent decision out of the Second District Court of Appeal, Bell v. State, provides an example of how Miranda can protect suspects of child sex crimes. In Bell, the defendant stood trial for sexually assaulting minor children in his care. Investigators took the children to an "operations center". The police invited Bell to the operations center for an interview and he willingly agreed to go. The police told Bell he was free to leave, initially.

Bell initially denied the accusations. The investigators informed him that they just had a "few questions" for another suspect before they could leave. Bell spent the next two hours waiting for release. The police then conducted a second round of questioning. This time they accused Bell of lying when he denied committing the crime. He then confessed to the sexual assault. Police never read Bell his Miranda warnings during either interview.

The Second District found that the police had violated Bell's Miranda rights. The court found that police never told Bell he could leave during the second interview. The children in Bell's care were already at the operations center in what essentially amounted to protective custody. All of this, when added together, made the interview a custodial interrogation, which required Miranda warnings.

Sexual crimes committed against children carry some of the heaviest penalties that Florida law allows. It is common for investigators to downplay the importance of these interviews. Often suspects hear phrases like "I just need to ask you a few questions". However, in practice, these conversations often determine the course of the rest of the accused's life. The Miranda warnings at issue in Bell can help convey the seriousness of these encounters.

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