In March of 1963, a man named Ernesto Miranda was arrested by the Phoenix Police Department. After an attempt to use his written confession at trial, his court-appointed attorney objected. The case reached the Supreme Court of the United States, where Miranda’s conviction was overturned on the grounds he had not been properly advised of his rights against self-incrimination.
Now, over fifty years later, there are few who do not recognize the words “you have the right to remain silent.” Many can recite their rights from memory, largely due to the frequent use of them in scripts for police dramas.
Under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, no person can be compelled to testify against himself. This is the basis for the right to remain silent. A suspect has the right to refuse to answer questions both in police custody and at trial. This right, combined with the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel, is one of the most powerful rights a criminal defendant has.
Right Not Privilege
The Supreme Court’s rulings make advising a criminal suspect of their rights mandatory in all fifty states. Anyone in custody or facing interrogation and especially someone who has already been arrested must be “Mirandized” or read their rights and advised they have a right to counsel and to have an attorney present during questioning. Because these rights are so important, the failure to observe them can have consequences.
If the police fail to advise a suspect of their rights in a situation where they are required to do so, any evidence they gain from questioning that suspect and possibly any evidence they gather as a result of what they learn by questioning that suspect can be excluded by the judge at trial. Occasionally this can result in a dismissal of charges, especially if the police were relying on a suspect’s confession as the key evidence to convict.
Occasionally, statements by a person who later becomes a suspect can be admitted into evidence despite the fact the person questioned was not advised of their rights. While this is a fairly standard exception to the rule, police have to tread a very thin line to avoid the appearance they are trying to manipulate the law to obtain evidence they otherwise would not have.
Despite the entertaining notion “the right to remain silent” was made up by an ambitious script writer, it is a central protection for anyone accused of a crime, and its purpose is to help guarantee the innocent will not be successfully prosecuted for a crime they did not commit.