Capacity to Waive Miranda Rights

Prior to interrogating a suspect, police officers must inform individuals of their legal rights. Mental health professionals are frequently called on to evaluate the extent to which criminal suspects have understood their legal arrest rights and made valid decisions with respect to waiving those rights. For individuals to knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive their rights, they must both understand and appreciate those rights. Research has consistently indicated that rights comprehension is significantly more impaired for younger adolescents than for older adolescents and adults. Furthermore, comprehension is most impaired among younger adolescents with lower intellectual abilities.

Miranda Warnings

Miranda v. Arizona (1966) required states to inform suspects prior to interrogation or questioning of several rights, which includes informing them of their right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in a court of law, their right to the presence of an attorney, and the right to free counsel if they cannot afford the cost of an attorney. These warnings were viewed as strengthening an individual’s protection against self-incrimination during police interrogation. The rights provided to adults in Miranda were extended to juveniles in the cases of Kent v. United States (1966) and In re Gault (1967). For those individuals who opt to waive these rights and undergo interrogation, any statements they make can be admitted as evidence against them in future court proceedings provided that the waiver is valid.

While the specific rights guaranteed to suspects prior to arrest and interrogation are outlined in Miranda, the specific wording and language employed in rights warnings vary between jurisdictions and police forces. Each warning typically contains the four prongs outlined in Miranda. A fifth warning prong has been added in many jurisdictions, which informs suspects that they can choose to stop questioning and consult with an attorney at any time. Additionally, some jurisdictions have included cautionary statements to juveniles regarding the possibility of having their case remanded to adult court or serving an adult sentence. Research has demonstrated significant variability in the language and readability of Miranda warnings across states, with Flesch-Kincaid Grade reading levels ranging from 4.0 to 9.9 in one study. The typical Miranda warning is at about the seventh-grade reading level, which is above the reading level of many intellectually impaired individuals. Also, the reading level of many adolescents in the juvenile justice system is below that of their peers. Many states employ separate Miranda warning cards for juveniles in an effort to simplify the warnings and increase comprehension.

Statements made by individuals who have waived their rights can be ruled inadmissible if a judge determines that certain conditions have not been met. Several U.S. Supreme Court decisions have established a totality of circumstances test for evaluating the validity of a rights waiver decision. This requires the court to consider both the suspect’s capacities and the procedures and circumstances surrounding the waiver. This includes whether the individual knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his or her rights. The knowing component requires understanding verbally or in writing the wording used in the warning. The intelligent component goes beyond simple understanding and requires that a suspect appreciate the significance of a particular right in his or her particular situation. For example, suspects may clearly understand a statement informing them that they can consult with a lawyer prior to interrogation, but without an appreciation of the role and function of a lawyer this understanding is rendered meaningless. Finally, the waiver must be made voluntarily, which requires that a suspect waive his or her rights independently, free from coercion from the police.


Researchers have investigated the influence of numerous factors on adult and juvenile Miranda rights comprehension, including age, IQ, ethnicity, prior police contact and criminal justice experience, socioeconomic status, psychopathology and symptoms, special education classes, psychosocial maturity, and interrogative suggestibility. Results from these studies consistently indicate that rights comprehension is significantly more impaired for younger adolescents than for older adolescents and adults. Furthermore, comprehension is most impaired among younger adolescents with lower IQ. Adults with mental retardation have also been shown to demonstrate poor Miranda rights comprehension, resulting in the most frequent waiver challenges in court. Results from studies evaluating the influence of the other factors have been less clear. It is important to bear in mind that although research has been helpful in identifying areas in which capacity may be impaired, these studies have important limitations. They have typically been conducted in laboratory settings and have used hypothetical scenarios and noncriminal samples, thereby limiting the extent to which the true stressful nature of police interrogations is captured. Under stressful circumstances, suspects’ understanding, appreciation, and reasoning about interrogation rights may be poorer than these findings suggest. Indeed, prior studies have shown that many adolescents in stressful or fearful situations, such as a police interrogation, will not be able to use their highest level of cognitive reasoning.

The choice whether to waive or exercise arrest rights represents the first step in a series of difficult decision points that individuals face when undergoing a police investigation. In addition to investigating the factors influencing arrest rights comprehension and waiver, researchers have examined the relationship between arrest rights comprehension and other possible outcomes arising from police interrogations. For example, researchers have begun to examine poor arrest rights comprehension as both a possible predictor of the decision to waive arrest rights and submit to police interrogation without assistance or advice as well as a predictor of the likelihood of offering a false confession. One recent study found that Miranda comprehension correlated negatively with false confessions in a juvenile sample, where juveniles were less likely to offer a false confession in response to a series of hypothetical vignettes as their Miranda comprehension improved.

Developmental Considerations

Results from research have generally demonstrated that younger adolescents with poor intellectual ability fail to comprehend adequately their Miranda rights. However, much of the variability in understanding can still be attributed to individual differences between people. A bright 12- or 13-year-old may demonstrate excellent understanding of Miranda rights, while a less intellectually capable adult may struggle to comprehend the content of typical Miranda warnings. However, adolescents are different from adults in one important way. They are at a stage of development in which they are still undergoing important maturational changes. Adolescence is marked by significant physical maturation, budding sexuality, an increased awareness of and sensitivity toward peers, and an increased desire for independence and identity development, to name only a few. One compelling explanation for the differences in understanding between adolescents and adults is that the cognitive capacities of adolescents are simply underdeveloped. Empirical evidence demonstrates that cognitive development continues throughout adolescence, and that it is only by age 17 that adolescents’ raw cognitive abilities become more comparable with those of adults.

In addition to developmental differences in cognitive factors, research shows that adolescents differ in other important ways relevant to legal competencies. Particularly, adolescents differ in their level of psychosocial maturity and in the way they reason and make decisions. Younger adolescents with intellectual abilities comparable with those of adults have less life experience to draw on, which may influence their reasoning and decision-making processes. Younger children and adolescents are generally less likely to think strategically about their decisions; they are less future oriented, are less likely to weigh the consequences of their decisions, and often act impulsively. Thus, even if a young person adequately understands the meaning of a Miranda warning, his or her appreciation of the consequences of the decision to waive or exercise those rights may suffer given his or her relative level of maturity and development. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that research demonstrates that the majority of young persons opt to waive their rights when being questioned by the police. Interestingly, results from Canadian and U.S. studies have shown that with increased rights understanding, young persons are more likely to refuse to waive their rights in the context of a criminal investigation.

Assessing Capacity to Waive Miranda Rights

It is important to clarify that the term capacity to waive Miranda rights does not refer to a specific legal disposition but rather to the capacity of the defendant to understand and waive his or her legal rights. Grisso has described three areas of functioning pertinent to the evaluation of capacity to waive rights, including a suspect’s understanding of the rights warnings, the suspect’s perceptions of the intended functions of the Miranda rights, and the suspect’s capacities to reason about the probable consequences of waiver or nonwaiver decisions. Researchers and evaluators have typically assessed the suspect’s understanding of the rights warnings by examining an individual’s understanding of the phrases included in a standard rights warning. Grisso conceptualizes appreciation of the significance of rights to comprise three main parts. First, suspects must recognize the interrogative nature of police questioning. Second, suspects must perceive the defense attorney as an advocate who will defend and advise them, and be willing to disclose confidential information to him or her (appreciation of the right to counsel). Finally, suspects must perceive the right to silence as a right that cannot be revoked and that statements made by them can be used in court (appreciation of the right to silence).

Grisso’s Instruments for Assessing Understanding and Appreciation of Miranda Rights were developed to assist mental health professionals to examine the capacities of individual youths or adults to waive their Miranda rights knowingly and intelligently at the time of their police interrogation. Three instruments assess the individual’s understanding of a typical arrest by asking examinees to paraphrase the meaning of each right, compare the four elements of a typical rights warning with a pool of statements including accurate and inaccurate rewordings of each of the sentences, and provide definitions of six words contained in the interrogation warnings. Appreciation of the warnings is evaluated in a fourth instrument, which assesses appreciation of the importance of rights in an interrogation and in legal situations generally by asking examinees to respond to pictures and vignettes describing youths interacting with various criminal justice figures. The instruments provide normative data against which evaluators can compare an examinee’s responses on the instruments; however the normative data are based on a sample of juveniles in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1980. An updated version of these instruments, The Miranda Rights Comprehension Instruments, is currently being developed.


Current findings from the literature underscore the need for the provision of appropriate assistance or improvement in the rights communication and the waiver processes. Results from research conducted on juveniles’ Miranda rights comprehension findings strongly suggest that although a majority of youths involved in police questioning and interrogation waive their rights, many of them, particularly younger adolescents, may not have the capacity to provide a valid waiver. The consequences of poor understanding and appreciation of arrest rights, in combination with a highly suggestible young person and coercive interrogation conditions, may be far ranging and logically include a greatly increased likelihood of offering a false confession. Youths, especially younger adolescents and preteens, may be especially vulnerable to making false confessions due to immaturity and poor judgment.


  1. Feld, B. C. (2000). Juveniles’ waiver of legal rights: Confessions, Miranda, and the right to counsel. In T. Grisso & R. G. Schwartz (Eds.), Youth on trial: A developmental perspective on juvenile justice (pp. 105-138). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Goldstein, N. E., Condie, L. O., Kalbeitzer, R., Osman, D., & Geier, J. L. (2003). Juvenile offenders’ Miranda rights comprehension and self-report likelihood of offering false confessions. Assessment, 10, 359-369.
  3. Grisso, T. (1998). Instruments for assessing understanding and appreciation of Miranda Sarasota, FL: Professional Resources.
  4. Grisso, T. (2003). Evaluating competencies: Forensic assessment and instruments. New York: Plenum Press.
  5. Helms, J. (2003). Analysis of Miranda reading levels across jurisdictions: Implications for evaluating waiver competency. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 3, 25-37.
  6. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).
  7. Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966).
  8. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
  9. Viljoen, J. L., & Roesch, R. (2005). Competency to waive interrogation rights and adjudicative competence in adolescent defendants: Cognitive development, attorney contact, and psychological symptoms. Law and Human Behavior, 29, 723-742.

Read more about Juvenile Offenders in Forensic Psychology.