Foiled by Miranda

It is a guaranteed scene in a cop drama.

Our detectives are interviewing a suspect, trying to break them, and they say those fateful words…

“I want a lawyer.”

Thwarted, the detectives end their interrogation and look for another way to nail their suspect, which turns out to not be their culprit a big part of the time.

This oft-repeated scene is a brilliant piece of copaganda. The invocation of the Miranda rights is typically presented as a bad thing, a major hurdle to an investigation. Only criminals trying to get away with something would ask for a lawyer or invoke their right to remain silent. Or hell, even ask to end the questioning and leave because they’re not under arrest. But the truth is that these rights are guaranteed for everyone and not just criminals are entitled to use them.

If you’re unfamiliar, Miranda rights are the spiel that used to frequently be recited onscreen, usually when a person was placed under arrest, typically to the tune of: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

I don’t think you see it as often now as it’s just sort of understood that it happens. I could be wrong, of course. I watch several cop shows currently in production, but not all of them. Maybe some shows are saying it more than others. But it happened a lot on older cop shows. In fact, there’s a few Barney Miller episodes that make a point of ensuring the rights have been read.

Here’s the thing: if you’re under arrest or being detained, the cops do not need to read you your rights to have the rights available for you to invoke. This is especially important since the Supreme Court decided to take away any repercussions for law enforcement NOT informing people of their rights. The cops do not give you your Miranda rights; they’re already there.

Here’s the other thing: if you’re not under arrest or being detained, then the questioning is voluntary, which means that anything you say can be used against you, but you’re also free to end the questioning at any time. Cops will sometimes inform you of this, but often times they’ll word it in such a way that makes you feel like you can’t really end the questioning or leave. But you can.

When you watch these scenes play out on television, there’s an underlying, unspoken insinuation that an innocent person wouldn’t have to invoke their Miranda rights or stop an interview before law enforcement was finished. And it’s a trap that many innocent people fall into. “I haven’t done anything wrong, so I don’t need a lawyer/I’ll answer the questions” turns into marathon interrogations leading to false confessions. It’s not an uncommon thing.

Innocent people can, do, and should invoke their Miranda rights or leave a voluntary interview.

So should criminals. Those rights are available to everybody.

And even though it is a major source of frustration for our heroes -and hell, even me as a viewer out for fictional justice and firmly on the side of our mythical good guys- I can’t help but get a little thrill whenever I see someone invoke their rights onscreen. Hell yeah, honey. Shake what the Fifth Amendment gave ya.

It’s not like someone won’t be totally waiving their rights and spilling their guts in a full blown confession in the last five minutes anyway.