The right to remain silent when questioned is a facet of the US legal system that most of us know only too well from watching far too many police dramas. The phrase, “You have the right to remain silent…” has gained a mythical sense of being a self-evident element of a fair justice system without too much thought being given to its history.
The reason why it is important to consider it is for the same reason as poet George Santayana said:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – Life of Reason, 1905.
It is when we cease to remember why or how we have come to have basic freedoms, such as the right to silence, that we are in danger of losing them. And it is easy sometimes to forget that the legal system in the United States is based on hundreds of years of Constitutional precedents, amendments and legal rulings that in themselves were based on much older documents such as the Magna Carta.
In fact, most people don’t realize that many of the niceties of the American justice system, at least in terms of informing defendants of their rights, is based on a relatively recent (1966) United States Supreme Court Decision of Miranda v. Arizona. It was this decision that made it a requirement for the police in the United States to give a formal warning of the suspects’ rights before they faced an interrogation, which is the Miranda Warning that we now hear on all our police dramas, and which usually takes this form.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”- Wikipedia
The best advice when charged with criminal activity, in legal terms at least is clearly to remain silent.
This is because there is a presumption in the US legal system of being presumed innocent until proven guilty, and hence in legal terms you are better of saying nothing, rather than opening your mouth and proving everything.
This is clearly not always the moral choice and especially if you are innocent of the charges you may feel compelled to explain your actions. But compulsion and best practice are not always easy bedfellows, so using the right to silence is always a good idea at least until you have had a chance to discuss your situation in private with your legal representative.