Words matter when it comes to those police warnings that typically begin, "You have the right to remain silent."
Television police dramas recite Miranda warnings to add a note of authenticity, which is why Americans are so familiar with the short-hand version. But when police officers inform suspects being taken into custody that they retain some constitutional rights, that information needs to be explicit and precise in order to reduce the coercive nature of the interaction.
Over the years, policing agencies have tried to sidestep giving the full Miranda warnings as a way to keep suspects from exercising their rights. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving the Tampa Police Department that asks whether police must explicitly inform a suspect that he has the right to consult a lawyer both before and during questioning.
Last September, the Florida Supreme Court reversed a conviction against Kevin Dewayne Powell, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of possessing a firearm as a felon. The majority said that police erred during a 2004 arrest since they only informed him of his right to talk to a lawyer before answering questions and didn't mention his more consequential right to have an attorney present during questioning.
To some, this might sound like a semantic argument. But in that intimidating moment of an arrest, it is vital suspects are told their right against self-incrimination includes having an attorney's assistance throughout the ordeal. Otherwise they may conclude that an attorney is only available before questioning begins.
Shortly after Powell's conviction, Tampa police changed its Miranda warnings to include this clarification. In a concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente suggests creating a standard form for police departments around the state — a sensible idea.
The Miranda warnings, first established in a 1966 case of Miranda vs. Arizona, were designed to breathe life into the Fifth Amendment protection against being a compulsory witness against oneself. The warnings are a reminder that under America's judicial system, the suspect, even in handcuffs, has some control over what happens next. How much control needs to be clearly and explicitly spelled out. The U.S. Supreme Court should affirm the Florida Supreme Court's ruling.