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How does the Fifth Amendment apply to me?

Question: I see all the time on cop shows how they "read people their rights." What exactly does that mean? Don't cops have to read you your rights if they are going to arrest you?

Answer: What a great question--too many people don't know what their rights are. It's important to be informed. We often hear on television or in the movies that "You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be sued against you." The law requires this statement whenever a person is arrested.

Many people, however, do not know what the law is or why it is required. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects all people in the United States-- regardless of whether or not they are a citizen. That amendment guarantees everyone the right not to incriminate themselves. In a nutshell, you cannot be required to provide information to law enforcement that would result in you being prosecuted for a crime.

The right has been there since the constitution was adopted. It wasn't, however, codified in law, until a case came before the United States Supreme Court in 1966. The case was called Miranda v. Arizona and that is why the rights are sometimes referred to as "Miranda Rights."

Law enforcement must read those rights to everyone who is arrested. Police, however, do not have to read you those rights if they are simply investigating you. And this is where many people can get into trouble.

If you are not under arrest, officers can ask you anything they want, anytime they want. They are not bound by any rules or regulations on what they can ask. Many people falsely assume that if an officer has not read them their rights and initiates a conversation, the conversation--and any information contained in it--cannot be used against them in court. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Anytime you speak with a cop, anything you say can be used against you unless you are under arrest. So what should a person do, especially one who might be accused of being on the wrong side of the law?

The smartest, most prudent thing you can do is refuse to speak with law enforcement. Be polite, give them your name, but beyond that be sure to state, "I will not talk to you without an attorney." At that point, all questioning must cease. If you have questions about your rights, or you have been arrested, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to further protect you.

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