What is 'the right to remain silent' and will we always have it?

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you. You have the right to counsel. If you cannot pay for a lawyer, one will be provided for you."

These statements, known as the "Miranda" warnings, have been read to suspected criminals by police officers ever since the US Supreme Court decided in 1966 that individuals need to be told what their rights are.

This year, the Supreme Court may take another look at the ruling to determine whether the court made the right decision 33 years ago.

The rights stated in the Miranda warnings are found in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution, which means they are part of the Bill of Rights.

The Fifth Amendment says that a person does not have "to be a witness against himself" - in other words, he cannot be forced to confess that he broke the law. The Sixth Amendment says that a person who has been accused of breaking the law has the right to have a lawyer, this is known as "the right to counsel."

Ernesto Miranda was convicted of two serious crimes. At his trial, statements he had made when he was questioned by police were used as evidence against him. He had not been told of his constitutional rights - that he could refuse to answer or that he could talk to a lawyer - before or during questioning.

After he was found guilty, Miranda asked the Supreme Court to decide if he had been treated fairly. Five of the court's nine justices concluded that Miranda should have been told what his rights were.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that police investigators as well as courtroom judges have to obey the Constitution. Warren believed that the uneducated and poor should have the same rights as those who are educated and wealthy. To make sure everyone is treated equally, all suspects must be told what the rules are.

Justice John Marshall Harlan, one of the four dissenting justices, feared that the ruling would limit the ability of police to conduct investigations and that guilty individuals would go free.

Miranda won his case and a place in history, but the decision still raises questions.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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