If you've ever seen a police procedural drama, you have almost certainly heard the following speech: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you."
These are called Miranda Rights (or Miranda warnings). Although the short speech may sound cliché because of how often it is dramatized on television and in movies, the recitation of Miranda rights is critically important. And earlier this week, the practice of reading arrestees their Miranda rights turned 50 years old.
The name Miranda refers to the defendant in a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. In that case, a man named Ernesto Miranda had been charged with and later convicted of kidnapping and rape. His conviction was largely based on a brief "confession" which he later tried to recant. The case was later appealed on the defendant's allegations that it had been false and coerced.
When the Supreme Court overturned the man's conviction, it set the precedent that police would be required to inform all criminal suspects of their rights before being interrogated (usually at the time of arrest).
What exactly do Miranda rights tell us? Here's a closer look:
"You have the right to remain silent." This means you are not compelled to answer questions (without an attorney there to represent you) or say anything that could possibly incriminate you. Your decision to talk could actually be used against you if you say something incriminating.
"You have the right to an attorney." Interrogation can be grueling, confusing and scary. In fact, the process is usually this way by design. Too many suspects end up accidentally saying something incriminating, even if they are completely innocent. False confessions are especially likely among minors and those with intellectual disabilities.
As the Miranda speech says, you have the right to have a criminal defense attorney by your side before answering any questions police may ask. If you ever find yourself under arrest and about to be interrogated, it is critical to exercise this right. An attorney can ensure that you are not being coerced, intimidated or tricked by interrogators. He or she can also intervene if a question is asked that you are not legally required to answer.
The Miranda warning has been around for 50 years, but many people don't stop to consider just what it means and why the rights listed in it are important. Hopefully, you are now better equipped to exercise your rights in case you should ever need them.