Protecting Your Rights: The Importance of Legal Counsel

Presumption of InnocenceOne of the hallmarks of the American judicial system is the presumption of innocence. Though the United States Constitution doesn't actually use the words "innocent until proven guilty," the idea is implicit in many of the Constitution's provisions.

As citizens, we look to our governments - local, state, and national - to, among other things, protect public safety and "promote the general welfare." But with this authority, government - through law enforcement agencies - has great power to detain, question, and arrest citizens. As protection against government abuse of this power, citizens are guaranteed certain rights that they can invoke when they are arrested or subjected to a criminal investigation.

If you are facing criminal charges, your defense attorney acts as the guardian of your rights and the protector of your interests, and ensures that the principle of presumption of innocence is maintained.

Basic Rights: Legal Counsel and Protection Against Self-IncriminationThe Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that citizens can not be compelled to testify against themselves in criminal proceedings. This protection against self-incrimination rests on the notion that the burden of proof falls on the prosecution. The innocence of the defendant is presumed; the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused person is guilty.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that defendants have access to legal counsel. This right comes from the idea that an ordinary citizen isn't familiar enough with the law to know what to do or say when confronted with an accusation that he has committed a crime. It also arises from the understanding that the power of government in general, and law enforcement in particular, can intimidate a defendant. The guidance of an expert in the law is needed to make sure that the defendant doesn't give up his rights or compromise his defense.

Miranda Warning
Most of us learn about Miranda rights - the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel - from TV and movies, and can probably recite them from memory:

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.

This advisement is meant to provide each arrested person with an understanding of the basic protections they have against the government's power to investigate a crime.

There are some important issues to bear in mind about Miranda Rights, however:
  • Police are not required to read the Miranda warning when they make an arrest. Instead, the Miranda warning comes into play when you have been taken into police custody - meaning you've been arrested - and police plan on interrogating, or questioning, you.
  • In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court eased the limits on law enforcement tactics to obtain incriminating statements. The Court said that while police must stop their questioning once a suspect invokes his right to counsel, the mere appointment of counsel does not preclude police from talking with a suspect, and that statements made by a suspect before he has spoken with his attorney may be used by the prosecution. (Click here for a complete review of this case, Montejo v. Louisiana.)

The Importance of Quality Legal CounselThe rules pertaining to questioning of suspects by police are complex and easy to forget or misinterpret when under the duress that comes with an arrest. Your defense attorney should be able to advise you on what you should and should not say, and put you in the best position to defend yourself against criminal charges. If you or someone you know has been arrested, call me at (916) 442-1200 to discuss the details of the case in a free and confidential consultation.