Why we have Miranda rights

Whenever you watch a crime show on TV or in the movies there is almost inevitably that portion of the program where one of the detectives says, “you have the right to remain silent…” It means the cops have got the goods. It creates dramatic finality and seems to suggest that the bad guy is headed for the Graybar Hilton for a long, long time.

  • BY Wire Service
  • Thursday, June 19, 2008 11:22pm
  • Opinion

Whenever you watch a crime show on TV or in the movies there is almost inevitably that portion of the program where one of the detectives says, “you have the right to remain silent…” It means the cops have got the goods. It creates dramatic finality and seems to suggest that the bad guy is headed for the Graybar Hilton for a long, long time.

Just about everybody knows the term “Miranda Warning.” Have you ever stopped to think about exactly what that is and why police officers provide the warning? Unless you know your civics very well, (or attended law school), most people do not.

The right of a person suspected of a crime to “remain silent,” or in other words not incriminate themselves, is based on the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. That part of the Bill of Rights states a person cannot be compelled to be a witness against themselves, and that they can’t be tried twice for the same crime (double jeopardy).

So why am I getting into the Constitution? Because the way the courts interpret it and the way law enforcement officers work with the court’s expectations have a very specific effect on how we do business and how people are treated.

Those of us in law enforcement are given a lot of authority and a public trust that we should not violate. Police officers can take away a person’s liberty and in extreme circumstances, even take a life. That’s a big deal and we know it, and while we constantly monitor and train our officers to be prepared for violent confrontations, we also are reminded that most of our job is community service. The faith and trust of our residents is paramount to us.

Years ago, when a person was picked up by the police they would sometimes be interrogated for hours, and not allowed to see a lawyer. They would be questioned continuously, sometimes threatening or inferring violence. That’s hard to fathom today, because both the courts and the profession overall has moved on.

The Supreme Court cases that have become part of our lexicon, like “Brown vs. Board of Education,” have noble people at the center. Although the Miranda case is important and changed the way the police interact with the public, the person at the heart of the case itself was not noble, and the way his case was handled shows exactly why the court’s decision was correct.

Ernesto Miranda was accused of sexual assault of a young girl. The criminal case went all the way to the Supreme Court based on the argument that because he had not been specifically advised of his right to remain silent, his due process rights were violated. The court agreed, and to this day we read the Miranda rights to suspects. The police in the Miranda case, however, simply turned around and found additional evidence and Miranda was convicted.

That’s the point—far from reducing the effectiveness of the police, the case clarified the rules and worked to make cases even stronger.

Miranda served his sentence, was released and later was killed in a bar fight. It is worth mentioning that the man who killed him was read his Miranda rights before questioning.

Miranda was a bad guy who through strange circumstance has his name attached to a significant court case. Today, with the Miranda requirement instilled in everything the police do, studies show the rate of successful prosecutions is higher than it was before Miranda. A strong argument could be made that the Miranda decision was the first big step in changing law enforcement from a trade to a profession. Effective public safety and respect for the rights of the accused are not mutually exclusive.

Have a great week.


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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is a former president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. Contact thebrunells@msn.com.
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