Tuesday, December 8, 2009

You Have the Right....

On Monday the Supreme Court heard a case involving a man who signed a confession, after receiving his Miranda rights, but who said he did not know that he had a right to have a lawyer present when he was being interrogated. According to observers it appears that the justices were siding with the need to have this expressly stated. If this is the way the Court goes, and I hope they do, I applaud them on this change, which could make a significant impact in interrogations.

If you watch enough television, and everything seems to be about crime or medical shows these days, very rarely is there ever a lawyer present during questioning. When they are present they are portrayed as obstructionists who are keeping the police or the DA, the "good guys," from finding out the truth from the "criminal," who is clearly the bad guy and has something to hide because he wouldn't be a suspect if he wasn't guilty (and that was even said by a US Attorney General). But the normal portrayal is the police/DA interrogating someone without a lawyer present, and when the "criminal" asks for an attorney to be present the police either refuse (which is illegal by the way) or they talk them out of it because an attorney will only get in the way and make things worse, or at least that's what they are told. This invariably results in the person saying okay they'll talk without an attorney and then they confess to everything without legal counsel.

Now I know that TV is not real life, but how many people decide what is good or bad, or how things are really supposed to happen based on a TV portrayal? I would guess the percentage is pretty high. All we have to do is look at how many people think that torture is okay because when Jack Bauer does it it always works, the intelligence is good, and the end justifies the means. For those without a good education, who don't understand legalise and who are often scared out of their minds, it is little wonder that we get false confessions. Making clear the need for suspects to be specifically told that they have the right to have an attorney present when they are being questioned. That is when the most damage can be done and often when their advice is needed the most. The right to a fair trial is guaranteed in the Constitution and the framers knew first hand how coercive the state can be through the use of the police and the court and sought to protect this. Now if we can just decide as a society to adequately fund the public defenders office. Unfortunately this does not match up with our "get tough on crime" mentality coming from both the right and the left.

As an interesting aside, Miranda rights are named for after the court case Miranda v. Arizona, in which Ernesto Arturo Miranda confessed to rape and robbery following a police interrogation. Miranda had a long and checkered past with the law, but the case claimed that police should have told him that he had the right not to talk to the police, had the right to an attorney, etc. Federal law enforcement officials had been using a similar statement for years, but most local forces did not until they were ordered to by the Court in 1966. If Miranda thought he had problems with the police before the decision, they were just beginning. Every time that he got out of prison the Phoenix police department would literally follow him around town and stop him for even the smallest infraction, often leading to his arrest. I could tell some good stories that I have heard, not only about Miranda, but others, but I will refrain. Miranda was stabbed and killed in a bar fight at the age of 34. One of his killers was apprehended shortly after and as he was being cuffed he was read his rights which Miranda had won him the right to hear.

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