For 34 years, TV shows and movies about police have taught Americans this simple message from the Supreme Court's landmark Miranda decision: You don't have to incriminate yourself to a law officer.
That right to remain silent (and to have a lawyer) was always inherent in the Constitution's Fifth Amendment. But the Warren court in 1966 said police couldn't be trusted not to coerce a false confession from a suspect.
Anyone under interrogation must first be told their rights. Ignorance of the law is a defense for a suspect who isn't advised against self-incrimination, the court essentially ruled. Ever since, many criminals who weren't read their rights were able to go free.
Police, who once disliked the "Miranda warnings," accept it these days as normal procedure. But now the issue is up for grabs.
A new case, known as Dickerson v. United States, is being argued today before a more conservative Supreme Court. A ruling, which could come by early summer, may keep Miranda, drop it, or result in a "Dickerson warning" that more easily allows confessions to be used in court.
We hope the court at least reinterprets the role that confessions can play in not only bringing criminals to justice but in helping them reform and avoid more lawbreaking.
The case centers on a little-known law passed in 1968 by Congress in reaction to the Miranda ruling. The law allows a trial judge to decide whether a confession is voluntary in light of "all the circumstances."
Giving police and courts more discretion to use confessions might solve more crimes, but it might also put innocent people in jail.
That difficult problem arises because of the importance that society places on confession. It is used both to punish wrongdoers and to help them become whole again.
Does Miranda actually serve to discourage confessions? If so, that would undermine the power that a confession has to transform an individual and win compassion and support from society.
And what can we tell a criminal's next victim if the honest confession of a criminal isn't allowed in court and used by the justice system as the basis for moral rehabilitation of the criminal?
The Supreme Court must decide if any police interrogation is coercion- free and whether suspects have enough sense to waive their rights and make a confession.
Some 80 percent of suspects do waive their Miranda rights. Somehow they just want to talk. That's done voluntarily. Why then can't any confession be seen as voluntary? Both acts require a rational choice. Is one less rational than the other?
Confessions don't just happen in a cultural vacuum, free of pressures on a suspect. Getting caught in a crime does not always leave every person in the mental state of freely choosing honesty and openness. But those qualities can be encouraged and not forced from a suspect.
Who would not want to live a life of honesty, if given a chance? By claiming proper guilt, a criminal can claim honesty, and start afresh. The court must find a way for police to have suspects understand both their rights and the benefits of confession.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society