The Debunker: When You're Arrested, Are You Entitled to One Phone Call?

by Ken Jennings

Unless you’ve dedicated a lot of time to breaking the law, most of what you know about the cops comes from movies and TV, and those may or may not be just the facts, ma’am. All month, Ken Jennings will be exploring the “thin blue line” between police fact and police fiction. If you actually thought this stuff was true—well, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the comments section.

Police Myth #3: When You’re Arrested, You Get One Phone Call.

Police arrests in movies and TV shows are always followed by a phone call—for dramatic purposes, I assume. We need to see the ne’er-do-well tearily confessing his downfall to a parent or spouse or co-conspirator. (Or lawyer, I guess, but that seems to happen less often in the movies than it does in real life.) This cliché has become so deeply engrained in the popular imagination that arrestees—in movies and in real life as well—now know to ask for “my phone call,” as if they are entitled to exactly one.

In fact, that’s not really true. There’s no constitutional guarantee to a call, and phoning isn’t mentioned in the Miranda rights at all. Arrestees have the right to an attorney, sure, but the matter of where and when and how they get to contact one is left to individual jurisdictions. No court has ever found a “one phone call at booking” rule in the penumbra of the Constitution.

That said, in the years since the Miranda v. Arizona ruling in 1966, many state legislatures have codified arrest procedures for law enforcement officers. In California, for example, an arrested person gets “three (3) completed telephone calls” no later than three hours after arrest, except when physically impossible. And you’re guaranteed two more if you have child care issues. So much for “one phone call”—in California, you can go through half your speed-dial list!

In Texas, it’s two completed calls after booking (but no less than four hours after arrest). In Tennessee you get one completed call before booking. Some states may still have no such code, however (I can’t find any guidelines for Kansas, for example, and I read an account from a police officer there who tells suspects that they have no right to a call at all—that a written notification is legally sufficient for their right to contact an attorney.) Of course, in most cases, officers will be reasonable about accommodating requests to use the phone. But, depending on your state, that may be a courtesy and not a legal obligation. It’s certainly not your right as a citizen.

Quick Quiz: What lab assistant received the very first phone call ever, from Alexander Graham Bell on March 10, 1876?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.