You Have the Right to Remain Silent?

Post by Randall Ryder

Years ago, the US Supreme Court decided the Miranda case, which gave birth to the set of rights that are always provided to criminal suspects. The lines have been made famous by pop culture, including the first line of "You have the right to remain silent." This week, the Supreme Court offered a ruling that casts uncertainty on how that right is now invoked and exercised.

Under the Miranda decision in 1966, as noted by dissenting Justice Sotomayor, "a valid waiver will not be presumed simply from the silence of the accused after warnings are given, or simply from the fact that a confession was in fact eventually obtained." Theoretically, this would protect individuals who initially invoke their right from caving after hours of questioning and suddenly deciding to answer questions.

In the case before the Court, a man was advised of his Miranda rights when he was taken into custody. The defendant then refused to sign a statement that said he understood his rights (usually, suspects have to sign a waiver before talking to police). The suspect was then questioned for almost three hours in a tiny interrogation room, and generally kept his mouth shut. 

At the two hour and forty-five minute mark, however, the suspect answered three questions. "Do you believe in God; Do you pray to him; Do you pray to God for forgiveness for shooting that boy down?" To the last question, the suspect said "yes" and then looked away. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said those statements were a waiver of his right to remain silent. But did the suspect intend to waive his right?

In theory, this is the situation Miranda was designed to protect against–a suspect who says nothing (and implying they wish to stay silent) but then suddenly caves after hours of questioning. Many suspects would assume that by initially saying nothing, they believe they are affirmatively invoking their right to stay silent. 

Under the new ruling, however, suspects have to affirmatively say they wish to remain silent, which seems somewhat counterintuitive. Adding to the confusion, the Court did not expressly state that police officers must inform suspects they have to assert their right to silence. Many criminal suspects will not read Supreme Court decisions, and are unlikely to be aware of this change. As a result, many suspects may find themselves in the same situation as the suspect above, where they are questioned for hours, but then decide to speak up.

Nearly everyone understands "you have a right to remain silent." But without being informed that they need to affirmatively invoke that right, will suspects truly understand what this right means?

Miranda: a confusing Supreme Court ruling | The Los Angeles Times






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