If you have ever watched a police drama on television, you are probably familiar with the phrase “You have the right to remain silent.” This comes from a warning police are supposed to give to people they arrest before they question them, advising them of their constitutional rights. Known as the Miranda warning, after the 1966 Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, the passage is meant primarily to advise arrested people of their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The Fifth Amendment is only a few lines long, and yet it contains many of the most important protections afforded to people accused of crimes, including the right to due process and, for many criminal charges, a right to trial by a jury. The right against self-incrimination can be important at trial, as it frees defendants from having to serve as witnesses against themselves. In part, the Miranda warning is meant to advise people that the right against self-incrimination protects them during their arrest, as well.
The Miranda warning advises people that anything they say to the police can be used against them in court. When police arrest a person, whether it’s for a misdemeanor or a felony charge, they often try to get the person talking. Police then record or write down whatever the person said, and put it in their report about the arrest. Prosecutors rely on these reports and the police officers’ testimony to make their case against the defendant. They typically use the defendant’s words in the most unflattering light possible. This helps prosecutors build a stronger case. When a person stays quiet around the police, telling them no more than their name, the prosecution may have little evidence with which to build a case.
It is hard to stay quiet when police are asking questions. Being arrested can be a confusing and frightening experience. When someone is accusing them of a crime, many people have an almost instinctive reaction that makes them try to defend themselves or talk their way out of the situation. This almost never works. Police are well trained in getting people to divulge incriminating information, and prosecutors are skilled at editing police reports in a way that makes the defendant look guilty.
For these and other reasons, it’s best for people who have been arrested to avoid talking to the police. They may give their name and request an attorney. An attorney can then represent an arrested person and advise them on their rights.