Why must police advise a suspect of his right to remain silent?

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Answered by: Brian, An Expert in the Your Rights Category
The civil rights which police officers routinely read to a criminal suspect, commonly known as the "Miranda warnings", originate from the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Miranda vs. Arizona. In 1966, the Supreme Court was presented with a criminal defendant's request to have certain statements he made to the police deemed inadmissible at his criminal trial.

In its analysis, the Court reviewed a history of coercive police interrogation tactics. In order to protect the civil liberties and constitutional rights of all persons subjected to police interrogation, the Court set forth guidelines for interrogating police officers to ensure that a suspect is fully informed of his Constitutional rights. This rights include a clear and unequivocal warning that he has the right to remain silent followed by an explanation that anything he says can and will be used against him in court.

In addition, because the right to remain silent means little to a layperson, the Court determined it is also imperative that the suspect be advised that he has the right to have an attorney present and that, if he is indigent, an attorney will be appointed to represent him.

The Supreme Court's requirement is based upon the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fifth Amendment provides, among other things, that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. . ." Thanks to the Miranda warning requirement, this right extends beyond testimony in court and applies equally to in-custody police interrogations.

The practical rationale behind the Supreme Court's "Miranda" requirements was to curtail abusive and overly coercive police interrogation techniques. A police manual at that time outlined several tactics to be used by police officers to coerce a confession from a suspect. When dealing with a suspect who refused to talk, the manual suggests acknowledging the suspects right to remain silent, but, after some psychological conditioning designed to gain the suspects confidence, to point out the incriminating significance of a refusal to talk.

When dealing with a suspect who requests to speak to a relative or an attorney, the manual suggests the interrogator suggest the suspect save his family the expense of an attorney, especially if he claims he is innocent. The manual further suggested that the interrogator add that "he is only seeking the truth" and the suspect can handle that by himself.

While these tactics might have proven successful at coercing confessions, there was a legitimate fear that they could, and in fact did, produce false confessions. Although the number of true confessions obtained may have greatly outnumbered the few false confessions, the Supreme Court refused to abandon the overriding presumption of innocence and the cornerstone of the judicial system that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than to convict one innocent person.

As a result of this landmark decision is the well-known statement, "You have a right to remain silent. If you choose not to remain silent, anything you say can, and will, be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you."

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