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Miranda Warnings: The right to remain silent

Jan. 5, 2024

A common question that clients ask is, "the police never read me my rights. Does that help my case?" The answer is usually more disappointing than they hope, so let's discuss how this ubiquitous recitation became a rule and what it does and doesn't cover.

In the mid 1960s, The U.S. Supreme Court, in Miranda v. Arizona, considered four different cases involving the use of a person's own statements to help convict him of a crime. One of them actually stemmed from a couple of robberies in the Kansas City area, but each of these cases involved lengthy interrogations by law enforcement which ultimately led to successful prosecutions. The Court was called upon to interpret a clause found in the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads:

"No person ... shall be compelled in any criminal case

to be a witness against himself"

Since most of us aren't constitutional scholars, how is a person supposed to be aware of this right? How are they supposed to know what it means? Well, that's precisely what the Court in Miranda set out to clarify - and it's the reason we hear these Miranda Warnings recited at least once per episode on Law & Order.

The right to be free from "compulsory self-incrimination" doesn't just exist in the courtroom. Anytime a person is both in-custody (not allowed to leave) and interrogated (asked questions by the police), they have a right to remain silent. If the police don't warn you of this right prior to a custodial interrogation, then the statements you make to them can't be used against you at trial. It gives law enforcement an incentive to follow the rules because most cops want to avoid having their cases thrown out due to an easily avoidable error.

On the other hand, most criminal cases don't just hinge upon one or two incriminating statements made by the accused. They include other potentially damning pieces of evidence such as an officer's observations, physical evidence obtained at the scene, witness testimony from other people with knowledge of the facts, etc. This additional evidence remains unaffected by the diligence - or lack thereof - of an officer in warning you about your rights.

Remember, it's rarely a good idea to consent to a custodial interrogation, but another important piece to remember is that you can revoke that consent at any time by simply stating that you're done answering questions and that you'd like to speak to an attorney.