Get a lawyer!
Dec. 22, 2010By Steve Mount
I, dear reader, watch an almost embarrassingly large amount of television. It is one of my vices. There are worse things.
One of the types of shows I enjoy the most involve the police in some way. If you’ve watched almost any television in the past 20 years, you know the type. There are classics like the “Law & Order” franchise, “Homicide: Life in the Streets,” and “Hill Street Blues;” there are variations on the theme like the CSI franchise; and newer shows like “Medium,” “The Mentalist” and “Blue Bloods.”
If you’ve watched almost any television in the past 20 years, you’ve also heard the Miranda warning. The warning, which the Supreme Court has ruled must be given to suspects of crimes before they are questioned, goes like this:
“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 speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.”
The verbal warning is kept relatively short, so that police can recite it quickly (which is good, for television), but there is a much longer version — almost three times longer — that is more comprehensive and is usually given in written form.
The key components of the Miranda warning, spoken or written, are these: the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney and the fact that your own words can be used against you.
The point of all this is the dismay that I feel when watching some of these favorite police shows of mine. You might think, with my build-up above, that my problem is that police in these shows tend to forget the Miranda warning. Actually, to my memory, most television cops are very good about giving the Miranda warning, and many scenes end with a suspect being carted off in handcuffs for questioning as the arresting officer starts reciting, sometimes in a rote monotone, “You have the right to remain silent ….”
No, it is not the TV cops’ treatment of the Miranda warning that causes me dismay. It is that most suspects seem to forget all of their rights as soon as they step into a police station.
I certainly understand the need to move the story along, and watching a suspect sit and wait for a lawyer is hardly compelling television. In fact, a lawyer-supervised interrogation is also hardly compelling — much more TV-friendly is the tearful or angry confession, caused by a detective asking just the right question or a suspect being caught in a lie. And I have to admit a certain degree of schadenfreude when a smug suspect, whom the audience is well-aware is guilty, slips up and realizes they’ve just confessed to the crime.
What I’m afraid of, what my dismay is all about, is that as people watch these shows, and see these suspects spill their guts with a lawyer nowhere in sight, they will begin to think nothing of it — that should they ever find themselves in that situation, the best or perhaps only option, the Miranda warning be damned, is to confess and take their punishment.
As a civil libertarian, I want everyone to know their rights and exercise them to their fullest extent. But don’t get me wrong — in the end, with their rights intact, I want the guilty to be punished to the fullest extent. What I wish is that these shows could figure out a way for suspects to be represented by counsel and still get their just rewards.
Perhaps it is too much to ask — that a suspect exercising his right to counsel can still be compelling drama. But there has to be a way, and I issue a challenge to the writers of Hollywood to not only write such story lines, but to make them the majority rather than the minority. Unfortunately, I don’t know any Hollywood writers.
What I have, dear reader, is you. God forbid you should ever find yourself as a suspect in a crime. But if you do, don’t go down the route taken by too many TV characters. Exercise your rights and get yourself a lawyer; don’t answer any questions without that lawyer present; and for goodness’ sake, follow your lawyer’s advice.
Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.