Are You Really Entitled to a Phone Call When Arrested?

Chellie asks: Do people really only have the right to one phone call when put in jail in the United States?

jailBeing arrested is a terrifying and frightening thing with all the horror stories about police abuses of power and other prisoners being absolutely dead-set on making your life miserable in a variety of horrifying ways… at least that’s what the movies have taught us. As so often happens, the reality of being arrested doesn’t generally reflect what’s depicted on the big screen. So what about the one phone call rule?

It turns out, “You get exactly one phone call when arrested” is a useful, simple plot element, and easier to explain to an audience than, “being arrested is a legal minefield where your rights can vary based on a variety of factors.”

In reality, the number of phone calls you can make varies from as many as you want to zero, depending on the severity and location of your crime and how you act when arrested.

Thanks to the sixth amendment, you are entitled to legal counsel and, as clarified in the Supreme Court ruling in Brewer v. Williams, you are entitled to that counsel “at or after the time that judicial proceedings have been initiated… whether by formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or arraignment.”

As Hollywood depicts, you are also perfectly within your rights to keep your mouth shut, though they don’t actually tend to get it quite correct in the way it’s commonly portrayed. The police only need to give you the Miranda warning if they are conducting a custodial interrogation and want the record of that interrogation to be admissible in court. Other than that, giving you the Miranda warning isn’t necessary. In fact, even if they don’t give you this warning when they are about to perform a custodial interrogation, they can still use what they learn in their investigation. It’s just that what you specifically said, in this case, isn’t admissible in a criminal trial. But if they use this information to find other evidence, that certainly is. So, bottom line, contrary to what Hollywood shows, don’t expect them to give you the Miranda warning while they are cuffing you, and certainly don’t think you now have a get out of jail free card because they didn’t.

As you might expect, any lawyer worth anything will tell you to exercise the right to shut up, no matter if you are 100%, without a shadow of a doubt perfectly innocent and plan on being completely honest about it. There is literally no benefit to you talking to the police in this situation where you find yourself being arrested or brought in for questioning about something you allegedly did. (For more on this subject, check out this phenomenal lecture from Professor James Duane and Officer George Bruch, of the Virginia Beach Police Department. Officer Bruch even goes into some clever interrogation methods used by the police to get people to talk.  Needless to say, in these interrogations, they are extreme experts at extracting information that might incriminate you and you are in a high stress situation. You will lose every time. And if innocent, you might even make it seem you’re guilty unintentionally due to the stress of the situation. The police aren’t looking to get an innocent person convicted, but they don’t know you and if you’re in that situation, they very likely don’t think you’re innocent to begin with and are looking for even the smallest hint of evidence to use to further the case against you.)

Now, the fact that you’re entitled to speak to a lawyer would suggest you’re allowed to use the phone. But not actually. You don’t necessarily need to use the phone yourself to get a lawyer.

Further, the dramatic scenes depicted in cinema where you use your one phone call to contact someone and they don’t pick up, and so you don’t get another call, is also completely bunk.  While there is some variation in laws from state to state, in general the police can, at their discretion, allow you to make any number of calls to friends or family members, or really anyone you want, to set your affairs in order. As with using the phone at all, these phone-calls are (usually) a privilege offered by the police; a privilege that can be revoked at any time should you become violent or antagonistic, or are simply wasting their time by not using your phone call(s) for a legitimate reason. But if you behave yourself and are using your calls constructively, in general you’re not going to have any trouble getting access to a phone.

As mentioned, the laws vary from state to state. For example, in the state of Nevada (171.153 of the Nevada Revised Statutes),

Any person arrested has the right to make a reasonable number of completed telephone calls from the police station or other place at which the person is booked immediately after the person is booked and, except where physically impossible, no later than 3 hours after the arrest.

So in this case, unless the phone lines are down or you become so violent that they end up having to tase you to unconsciousness, or similar scenarios, you’ll get a “reasonable number” of phone calls regardless of how much of a jerk you may be.  One would imagine that the better you behave, though, the higher a “reasonable number” will turn out to be.

However, this isn’t always the case in other states where sometimes your only phone-related right is potentially the ability to contact a lawyer. But, again, even if this is not a right, generally if you need to call your boss at work to say you’re not going to make it in, or contact your husband to tell him where you’re at, or you need to arrange for someone to pick up your kids from school, etc. etc., most police officers are happy to accommodate that as long as you’re not causing problems.

Anecdotally, in researching this topic, I even found one case where an officer was willing to drive those arrested to an ATM so the people could get money needed for posting bond. His department did not take credit or debit cards. So when it’s that or waiting around for the person to make the necessary phone calls to gather together the cash and have someone bring it in, at that particular department, they just take you to an ATM if you’ve got the necessary cash in your bank account.  It’s quicker and easier for them (and you). Without them doing this, there are scenarios where you might spend the whole weekend in the county jail waiting for a judge to see you, when you otherwise could have just made bond and been out right away.

So what if you’re causing problems, but still need to get a lawyer, notify someone to pick up your kids or similar important things, but the police aren’t inclined, nor required to give you a phone call?   In these cases, the police will typically take care of it, depending on what specifically you need of them.

Even if you do play-nice, they may also not allow you to use the phone if they believe you may communicate with someone outside to dispose of evidence or something of this nature.  For this reason, in some departments, they may simply have a policy of always being the go-between no matter what. So no phone calls for you in these cases.

This, of course, leaves massive room for interpretation for people on both sides of the law and, since the police are only human beings, mistakes can and will be made. So, bottom line, once arrested, you have many rights that you’re free to exercise; making a phone call isn’t (usually) one of them. Regardless of what Hollywood has told you, yelling at an officer, “Where’s my f*****g phone-call” is likely going to end with you not getting one in many states.

However, if you call someone and they accidentally hang up, an officer isn’t going to gleefully tell you, “That was your one and only phone-call!  You’re now stuck in prison forever! *cackles madly*” They’ll probably just let you re-dial so they can finish processing you and go about their other duties, or if their shift is up, go home. While there are certainly bad-eggs in every profession (usually highly publicized in the case of police), contrary to what is often perceived because of these high profile screw-ups, most police officers are just normal people doing their jobs as outlined by the law and aren’t going to go out of their way to mess with your life. Beyond any moral or legal issues, doing that would typically just result in more paperwork for them to do. 😉

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Fact:

  • While most (including me) are happy to use “prison” and “jail” interchangeably. Prison and jail are technically not the same thing. In the U.S., jail is run by county sheriff’s offices, while prison is run by the Prisons and Corrections office of each state. In Canada, jail is run by the provincial government, while prison is run by the federal government.
  • You might also be wondering about phone rights after being convicted. The rules here also vary from state to state, but in general there are allotted times where prisoners will have access to a phone. But it costs… a lot.  In fact, the fees charged by prison phone service providers were so ridiculous that the FCC recently stepped in. Before this, when making calls the cost could be as high as $17 for a 15 minute phone call.  Now, even for collect calls it’s only about $3.15 for a 15 minute conversation.  Still quite expensive by typical standards, but much better than over $1 per minute.  As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated, “This means that many families will no longer have to choose between talking to their loved ones in prison and paying their utility bills. It means that society will benefit from the decreased rates of recidivism that family contact brings.”  While the inmates and their families are certainly happy about this, the companies involved are not and some of them are currently contesting this in court, claiming the new rates are below their cost to maintain the networks to the prisons.
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  • Do take some time to read “Arrest-Proof Yourself” by Dale C. Carson. Although not specifically about ‘the right to make one phone call’, it gives abundant information on what to do to avoid getting arrested.

    You’ll also understand why getting arrested, even if you’re later released, means that you can only be a garbage handler. Even if you have a PhD and stuff.

    No, really, just read the book.

    Mr. Carson was a Miami police officer who became an FBI agent and who is now a Defense Attorney, so he knows what of he speaks 🙂

    Reading that book gave me chills, depressed me, enlightened me, made me paranoid and a couple more emotions.

  • > In the U.S., jail is run by county sheriff’s offices, while prison
    > is run by the Prisons and Corrections office of each state.

    Last I heard, (parts of?) Alaska still dumped everyone into the same building, whether they were doing hard time or just waiting to make bail.

  • There are also Federal Prisons and City Jails.

  • Also, contrary to Hollywood. Tasers DON’T render you unconciuous (unless you hit your head and knock yourself out as you fall , ect). But the old movie trick of taser or stun gunning someone unconious is complete BS. I’ve been tased twice for training (once with the darts shot into my back and once with the alligator clips) and believe me, TASERS will wake your butt up!! OUCH!

  • ha ha ha. i can tell you’ve never been to jail. but i am glad you covered this topic, thank you. the catch is the calls have to be collect calls or court calling card calls. so if whoever you are calling doesn’t want to pay for a collect call, you get no calls. even if you are well behaved. i found this out. and had no way to call until a family visitor found out i was in jail eventually and came for a visit, then put $20 into a court calling card for me.

    Collective I.q.of JAILERS same as my money or less.
    Lawsuit will be in millions.

  • In my personal experience, in Central Florida, you get a phone call, but it is a collect LOCAL call. Meaning if you are outside your area code, and the people you need to reach, you effectively have NO WAY of communicating with your 1. lawyer 2. relatives 3. friends or anyone who can help you.

    I was arrested (falsely, but that’s another story, was never prosecuted) and only the fact a sympathetic public defender agreed to call my lawyer got me out of waiting 4 weeks MINIMUM for my trial date (more likely a hearing to set the trial date with more jail time on that waiting). I could have pled guilty at the hearing the morning after, which everyone gets but the charges would have resulted in immediate sentencing and the judge opined she’d probably give me 90 days, with time off for “good time”.

    For 3 days no one knew where I was. If I had not been able to reach my lawyer, who bailed me out, I would have first, lost my vehicle, which after 3 days cost $300 to get out of impound, lost my job, probably been evicted and all my belongings thrown away or otherwise disposed of.

    None of the guards or anyone else I talked to was the least bit helpful or sympathetic. I was in a holding cell 5′ x 10′ with one bunk bed, an open toilet and a sink and a door with a little window in it the guard looked in 2-3x a day for the first 3 days in the clothes in which I was arrested along with 3 other guys. 2 of us slept on the floor on a thin mattress between the toilet and the bunk bed. 2 of them were in the same boat as I was, with no way to communicate with the outside since they weren’t local, and had not bothered to use the phone since they didn’t know who to call. You couldn’t use directory assistance either, so if you depended on your cell for phone numbers and your party wasn’t listed, you were out of luck there too.

    Even the sympathetic defence attorney let me know that alerting my lawyer was above and beyond what she was required to do and it was only out of the kindness of her heart she was deigning to make the phone call.

    On the afternoon of the 3rd day I was transferred to county from the holding cell and given jail clothes and allowed to shower, finally. I was without my medication for my back these 3 days and the suicide counselor they made you talk to as part of intake let me know there was zero chance of getting any opioids while I was incarcerated. She offered me some Ibuprofen, 2 tabs.

    Then we went to a group meeting where they lectured us about being raped, and what to do if we were raped and how to report it, which was very comforting, to say the least, to know that it could be reported and perhaps acted upon after the fact. In the middle of the night I was released, as my lawyer had finally gotten word and bailed me out, but they charged me $84 for the 3 days I was in jail, leaving me with no cash and a dead phone battery they would not allow me to charge when they released me about 2am.

    I had time on my hands and daren’t spend any money on a taxi since I didn’t know how much the impound might be, so I got directions to the impound lot and walked for 5 hours to 7am, then waited there until 9am (on a Saturday, thank the lord they were open that day) when they opened. They told me it was $300 and some change to get my vehicle out, which luckily I had in the bank. I walked to an ATM then walked back and gratefully drove home.

    So yes, they offered us a phone call, but you must get someone to answer (if they won’t accept charges, like an answering machine, it won’t go through). Even then, they didn’t just “accept charges” but must input cash in some Byzantine manner into your account and the phone company would pay for your call out of that, so you needed someone very invested in taking your call in any case.

    In my mind it should be a right in this country to be given a means, free if need be, to contact SOMEONE to say where you were and to hopefully get help. It’s quite possible I might have been held 4-8 weeks with no one ever knowing where I was, like a disappeared person. This is why I am somewhat sympathetic to the much maligned ‘no bail needed’ laws. I been there.