Your Miranda Rights

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney, and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you."

We've heard them a million times, on TV, in the movies, and even in popular crime fiction. But what are your Miranda rights? Where did they come from? And what are the ethical and legal implications of having (or not having) them?

If you are involved in community activism (or civil disobedience of any kind), you may have heard from your organization that if you are arrested, the best thing you can do is to clam up and say absolutely nothing. If, on the other hand, you ask a police officer what you should do if you ever question by police, he will likely tell you that if you have nothing to hide, then you have absolutely no reason to invoke your rights.

These two contradictory pieces of advice share a grain of truth - the criminal justice system is not perfect, and innocent people are all too often convicted of crimes they did not commit, usually because they waived their Miranda rights and made incriminating statements, or false confessions; likewise, answering when questioned could clear your name, and lead to the truth of the matter. In some cases, people accused of crimes were not aware of their right to remain silent, such as in the 1963 case of Ernesto Miranda, charged with kidnapping and raping an eighteen year old mentally retarded woman. When he was questioned by police, Miranda was not informed of his right to remain silent, or his right to have a lawyer, and he confessed to the crime. This confession was later thrown out by a judge, and he was convicted again in a separate trial. In the 1966 Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona, the Court's ruling made confessions inadmissible as evidence unless the suspect was informed of his rights beforehand, thus paving the way for the advent of the modern Miranda warning.

Today, different police agencies have different policies on the use of the Miranda warning. Legally, it is required when a suspect is questioned while in custody - when he is not free to leave. In practice, officers often exercise extreme caution in giving the Miranda warning, sometimes to the point of reading off of a card with the Miranda warning printed on it, each time the suspect is spoken to. For law enforcement, this can be problematic, as the number of times a suspect is warned of his rights is directly proportional to the chance that he will choose to invoke them, and not speak to a detective.

When a suspect is not in custody and voluntarily participating in questioning, it is assumed that he is free to leave at any time (unless placed under arrest), and thus the Miranda warning is not legally required. Similarly, when a suspect is under arrest, but not being questioned, there is no legal requirement for him to be Mirandized. Law enforcement officers may give the warning anyway, although a skilled interrogator may choose not to (unless he feels it may hurt the case later, when any incriminating statements may be challenged by a defense attorney). In some cases, agencies require the use of a standardized form with the Miranda warning written, requesting suspects to initial each statement, and sign and date the bottom to indicate they have read (or been read) their rights and understand them.

Police may also use different variations of the Miranda rights. For instance, some may choose to give a minimal warning (the shortest possible advisory), whereas others may use a lengthier warning:

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you at government expense. If you choose to answer questions now, you may stop answering at any time until you have an attorney present.

This lengthier version (and similar ones) may be used as a precaution against challenged statements; however, they may also serve as a deterrent to the suspect for actually choosing to answer questions.

This Miranda warning is one example of America's protections for those accused of a crime, who have many rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, such as the right to a speedy, impartial, and public trial; protection against being given a cruel and unusual punishment; and protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Suspects of crimes are not permitted to be physically abused during interrogations, and they are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. The Miranda warning is another protection of a suspect's rights - it protects him from being unwittingly coerced into giving a confession.

Even so, the Miranda warning has proven problematic in certain cases. For suspects with mental retardation, true understanding of the Miranda warning can be hard to determine, and many inmates (possibly as many as 20%) are believed to be mentally retarded. Many were convicted on the basis of confessions, and some are even on death row. For suspects with autism spectrum disorders, the challenge may be even harder - autism being an invisible disorder, not readily apparent to the nonexpert in many cases - to determine whether or not the suspect actually understood his rights or waived them with full understanding of the possible consequences.

A number of autistic persons were read their rights, and asked if they waived them, and all of them slowly raised their right hands, exhibiting the autistic mindset of understanding language quite literally. Still other autistic persons could easily fall victim to common interrogation techniques, and give a false confession to either escape the situation, or to appease the authority figure (the interrogator), presenting problems especially if the person is innocent.

The Miranda warning is a good sign of how far America has come in our determination to protect the rights of all of our citizens. Unfortunately, its implications are large. For law enforcement, required reading of the Miranda warning may reduce the number of suspects who do speak to them, thus reducing confessions. For many vulnerable citizens, the Miranda warning may not serve them at all. And for society at large, they have become furniture in the American drama - always present, easily forgotten, and often overlooked.

Originally published at Fugitive Seeking Truth by Ylanne S., on 25 July 2010.