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Life in the USA
Government and Law
Police and Criminal Law
Rights of Accused People
As discussed above in the section on the Bill of Rights, people arrested on the suspicion of having committed a crime in the United States have many rights. The United States Supreme Court has occasionally specified how these rights are to be safeguarded. The 1966 case of Miranda vs. Arizona set a lasting standard. The case held that a set of warnings (now popularly called “Miranda warnings”) must be given to an alleged criminal on arrest, and before interrogation, otherwise evidence gained by interrogation of the defendant while in the custody of the police may not be admitted in any subsequent trial. Police personnel are trained to respect these rights, and often carry the text of the warning on laminated pocket cards so they can make sure their actions are legal.
A typical Miranda warning might read: “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 provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?” The arrested person must give a clear answer to the statement before the police can began a legal interrogation.
Miranda and other cases provide that police may only seize evidence of a crime (like drugs) in a legal manner by a court-ordered search warrant, or if they have “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed. Illegally seized evidence cannot be used against a person in a criminal court case. The question of what constitutes probable cause is often hotly debated.
One of the strongest constitutional protections for the accused is the rule that a person cannot be convicted of a crime unless a jury, after hearing all the evidence, is sure the person is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a very strong protection. What may be enough evidence in a civil case, usually “the preponderance” of evidence, may not be enough in a criminal case. Legally obtained physical evidence is always stronger than circumstantial evidence, and evidence not legally obtained simply does not count.
Because of these constitutional protections, many criminals go free. Before the Miranda decision, however, many police departments, especially when dealing with minorities, used oppressive, illegal, and even brutal methods to obtain evidence to support criminal cases. Modern America has turned its back on such expediency, placing cherished constitutional rights above all else.
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