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Last week on the blog, we took a look at issues of civil and criminal rights in the context of police conduct, trying to get a handle on the ways that the law governs the way police and citizens interact. Of course, events last month in Missouri put a focus on the difficulties that can sometimes crop up around these laws, but thankfully our legal system is very clear about the importance of maintaining reasonable safeguards on the conduct of both suspected criminals and police. When reflected in the actions of careful and professional people, our legal system provides an excellent means for keeping folks safe, preventing and deterring crime, and keeping police and citizen conduct on the right side of the law.

With that in mind, we thought we’d shift the focus away from police activity and look at the rights afforded by the law to those suspected of criminal actions. Even though the world of criminal justice is a complex one, the law is very clear about the rights criminal defendants are due to receive, and in fact, some of these rights stem all the way back to the founding of the country.

Indeed, the U.S. Constitution itself provides one of those fundamental rights to criminal defendants–namely the Fourth Amendment, which protects suspects against “unreasonable search and seizure.” This, of course, ties back into police conduct, as it governs the situations in which a police officer can stop a suspect, search or detain them. In general, in order for a suspect to be legally arrested or for “search & seizure” to take place, there needs to be so-called “probable cause”–that is, an adequate reason to suspect that person in an alleged crime. Obviously, the idea of an “adequate reason” leaves some room for interpretation, but the law is very specific that the reasoning of a police officer in these cases must be derived from facts, not from a vague idea or a possible hunch. Similarly, a person may be stopped by a police officer without detailed “probable cause,” but only if there is what’s called “reasonable suspicion.”

Another aspect of criminal defendant rights that is well-known in culture but little understood in practice is that of the “Miranda rights,” which are read out loud to suspects during arrest. While we all know “the right to remain silent” from our favorite cop shows, the fact is that these words denote a whole host of important things. For example, a suspect who has his or her Miranda rights read and then goes on to make self-incriminating statements is understood to be implicitly “waiving” those rights, which are designed to protect a suspect from coercion and unfair police practice. Similarly, the right to having an attorney who understands the law fully cannot be underestimated–it is an enormously important tool for someone suspected in a crime, and it’s only because the right is explicitly laid out by an arresting officer that many people can remain aware of it in such a high-stress situation.