The 1992 comedy (and favorite movie among lawyers) My Cousin Vinny begins with two young men on a road trip. They stop at a convenience store and after leaving, one youth realizes that he accidentally forgot to pay for a can of tuna. The pair are soon thereafter pulled over by police and arrested. During questioning, both youths vaguely admit to committing “the crime,” explain it was an accident, and apologize believing that they were under arrest for shoplifting a can of tuna. They later learn that the clerk at the convenience store had been shot after they had left and that they were actually under arrest for the clerk’s murder. Their confessions were later used against them at trial.
This scenario was recently addressed by the Appellate Division in State v. Sims. The defendant in Sims was arrested for suspected involvement in a shooting. He was given his Miranda warnings advising him of his rights including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. However, he was not told why he was under arrest; just that no charges had been filed yet. Sims was placed in an interview room, waived his Miranda rights, and proceeded to answer the detectives’ questions without further discussion as to why he had been arrested. Sims was asked about the events surrounding the shooting and his relationship to the victim among other things. Sims was ultimately charged with attempted murder and various weapons charges. Prior to trial, Sims attempted to suppress (or prevent from coming into evidence) the statements he made to the police. The trial court denied this motion. On appeal, Sims argued that the statements should have been suppressed because the officers did not tell him he had been arrested for attempted murder.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides the right against self-incrimination. You can of course waive this right, but the waiver must be knowing and intelligent to be valid. That is, you must have enough information as to what your rights are before you give them up. This is the foundation of the Miranda warnings. Our courts have required that police notify the suspect of the nature of the charges when charges have in fact been filed. However, prior to Sims there was never explicit requirement that a suspect be informed of why he/she was arrested if charges had not yet been filed.
In My Cousin Vinny, both youths when arrested were under the very mistaken impression that the charge was related to shoplifting tuna. Suffice it to say, they would not have confessed to “the crime” had they known they were arrested for murder. The appellate division recognized the importance of this knowledge in Sims. Similar to the movie, Sims was unquestionably under arrest for very serious charges including attempted murder. However, he did not know of these charges. The Sims court found that a defendant, once arrested, cannot knowingly and intelligently waive their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination unless they know what they are being charged with. Consequently, Sims was granted a new trial.
The court did leave open room for interpretation for future cases given the fact sensitive nature of these types of situations. However, it is undeniable that this case represents a significant expansion of the rights of suspects placed under arrest. At least in New Jersey, you now have a right to know why you are arrested before being questioned by police.
 For a full list of Miranda warnings and information relating to that case, see Facts and Case Summary - Miranda v. Arizona | United States Courts (uscourts.gov).
 It is worth noting that Miranda warnings are only required when you are actually arrested. What that means has been explored extensively by the courts and is beyond the scope of this particular post.