I have many grievances with how our criminal justice system is portrayed on television, but one of the few good things that it has done is emblazoned a person’s right to remain silent in the minds of even a casual viewer. The “Miranda Warning” came into existence in 1968, when the Supreme Court decided the case of Miranda v. Arizona. In that case, the Court held that in order to protect a person’s right to remain silent and in order to make that right meaningful in the real world, suspects had to be advised of that right before any interrogation that takes place in a “custodial” setting. Thanks to the ubiquity of police shows on TV, many of us can recite the four parts of the “Miranda Warning” from memory:
1) You have the right to remain silent.
2) Anything you say can be used against you in court.
3) You have the right to have an attorney present during any questioning.
4) If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed free of charge.
In the early 1990’s, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to revisit its decision in Miranda, and many suspected that what was then a very conservative (right-wing) Supreme Court would undo the requirements of Miranda. However, the Court decided to uphold Miranda; in doing so, the Court referenced the fact that so many people could recite “Miranda Warnings” from memory (after hearing it on television so many times) as a sign that the warning itself was an integral part of our right to remain silent.
And yet, Miranda warnings rarely stop people from confessing. I once had a case in juvenile court where my client was accused of possessing a stolen car – this particular charge requires actual knowledge that the car was stolen. I opened the file to find that my client was merely a passenger, and that the car had no damage to the steering column or ignition that would advertise to the world that the car was stolen. Being pleasantly surprised at how defensible this case was, I then turned the page to find my client’s detailed, lengthy, wholly unnecessary confession to having stolen the car, doing “doughnuts” with it in a parking lot, and then letting his friend drive shortly before being spotted and arrested by the police.
This kid was hardly an isolated example; a surprising portion of my clients confess before consulting with an attorney. I have no idea why they do this. Overall, it’s the sex offenders who are the most likely to confess to everything. Despite Miranda warnings and a spinning tape recorder placed on the table in front of them, a typical client accused of a sex-offense will go on and on about how he did indeed have frequent rendez-vous with the pre-teen that he met on Myspace, but then insist that everyone was ok because it was consensual (note: NOT A DEFENSE).
Sometimes police get people to confess by lying; for example, telling a suspect they found DNA at the scene, a fingerprint on the weapon, and/or a confession letter from a co-defendant. But this is fairly rare; usually the confession comes with only the slightest provocation. I can’t figure this out. My personal theory is that many of my clients come from religious backgrounds and are under the gravely mistaken impression that confession is good legally as well as spiritually. That is, if they confess, the system will show them mercy as a reward for their honesty (note: NOT TRUE).
Even when clients give statements that they think will get them out of trouble, it is usually better for them to remain silent. Often, they talk before knowing what the evidence is against them, and so they blab before they find out that the store surveillance camera/blood trail/three eyewitnesses completely contradict their self-serving malarky. Many times, I find myself thinking that I could have come up with a better defense than my client’s implausible tale, and that it would be easier if they would just STAY SILENT and let me do the talking.
It’s not that whatever you say can be used against you; it will be used against you, whatever you say. Don’t take my word for it; law enforcement experts agree that there is almost nothing that a person can say post-Miranda warnings that will help them, even if they are completely innocent.
Enjoy this informational video; and remember if you’re ever arrested, that since you have the right to remain silent, you should really just stop talking.