You've heard it: "You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you. You have the right to an attorney, if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you." Some variation of the Miranda warning has appeared in televisions and movies countless times since its creation 50 years ago. And if you have ever been arrested, you've had someone recite it to you.
What Does That Technically Mean?
Technically, only the first sentence applies to your Fifth Amendment rights. The second sentence is a statement of your Sixth Amendment rights: Your right to legal counsel. But the two go hand in hand and without demanding your Sixth Amendment rights, you could very well lose your Fifth Amendment rights altogether.
The most important thing to say to a cop? Nothing. If you are detained by an officer, state your name for identification. If the officer tries to engage you in conversation, state politely but firmly, "I choose not to speak to you without an attorney."
What Happens if I Say Anything Else?
If you say anything else, rest assured, it will be used in court against you. And something that seems benign to you may, in fact, get you convicted. You may think it is fine to admit you were at a party where illegal drugs were being used. After all, you don't do drugs and you have nothing to hide. But your admission places you at the scene of a crime. People have been convicted on that information alone.
And just because a cop has read you your rights does not mean he is going to respect them. That burden is on you and you alone. An officer will use anything from an engaging friendly tone to a hostile threat to try and get you to talk. They know that unless and until you state, "I choose not to speak to you without an attorney", you are fair game. They'll be your new best friend: they understand, they know you don't use heroin, they just want to know if you were there when it was going on. It's a harsh game and not one you want to play. Because you will lose. Every time.
But I Can’t Afford an Attorney
You don't need to. You don't even need to have one right away. It may be days before you can get before a judge--think being arrested on a holiday weekend and court doesn't reconvene until Tuesday--and you may be being held in jail waiting to be appointed legal counsel.
It's lonely in jail. You may want someone to talk to--that's only natural. You're scared, you're worried. But the detective knows that. And he knows you're vulnerable. And vulnerable people incriminate themselves. Don't talk. Not to your mom on the phone, your girlfriend if she comes to visit or to anyone who is in jail with you. Silence is golden.
Practice 10 simple words: "I choose not to speak to you without an attorney." Practice them now. Commit them to memory. Say them until they become second nature, until you can recite them as easily as you can rattle off your name and address. Practice--so you can protect yourself, and protect your future.