Police shows on television have made most of us familiar with the phrase “You have the right to remain silent,” but unless you have experience with the criminal justice system, you have probably not given much thought to what the phrase means.
The right to remain silent is the first of four rights police must read to you before they interrogate you: You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law; you have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. These are known as Miranda rights, after Miranda v. Arizona, an important Supreme Court case.
If police fail to read your Miranda rights to you as they are arresting you, a court will find that any statements you made during an interrogation were made involuntarily, and therefore it would be an infringement of your Fifth Amendment rights for the prosecution to use them against you. The court will suppress these statements, and so they can’t be used as evidence in your trial.
Unfortunately for many people who have been accused of crimes, it is relatively easy to waive your Miranda rights after you have heard them. It’s natural to respond when people are talking to you, and police are very good at casually getting suspects to begin talking. Once you begin talking, the police will remember what you said, and prosecutors will use it as evidence against you. They will argue, and the court may well agree, that you waived your right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination.
This is just one of the reasons it is crucial that people accused of a crime talk to a defense lawyer as soon as possible.