Even if you’ve never been read your Miranda Rights, you’ve probably heard about the right to remain silent. In movies, books, and television shows, police explain to those under arrest, “You have the right to remain silent.” But what does it actually mean, and why does it matter?

Your Miranda Rights

The term “Miranda Rights” refers to the fundamental rights that police must give anyone taken into police custody. By law, police must read you your rights at the time of your arrest. If they don’t, anything you said to the officer may face dismissal in court. It may give a judge reason to overturn your case.

The Miranda Rights protect your right to silence and your right to an attorney. You are under no obligation to answer any questions when an officer begins to question you because you might incriminate yourself. And although you may be tempted to answer a few simple questions, it can come back to hurt you in the future.

How to Invoke Your Right to Remain Silent

Staying silent does not mean ignoring a police officer. You still need to answer questions about your name and residence. And you need to speak up about invoking your right to silence.

When they read you your rights, silence can hurt you. A Supreme Court decision requires you to indicate (verbally) that you want to invoke your rights. In a murder case involving a suspect who refused to acknowledge his Miranda Rights, the Supreme Court agreed that the suspect waived his rights through his silence. After not acknowledging police, he gave into a line of questioning. Eventually, he gave a confession that the prosecution used to get a conviction. Although an appeals court ruled that the confession should be dismissed (because the police failed to respect his right to remain silent), the Supreme Court found that silence wasn’t good enough.

To let police know that you want to invoke your right to silence, you can say “I invoke my right to stay silent,” “I will not answer any questions without my lawyer present,” or any similar statement is enough to invoke your rights.

If you say anything other than a statement to invoke your rights, an officer can interpret it as you waiving your rights. So even if you invoke your rights, you should stay silent.

Silence is Golden

Although not everyone takes advantage of their right to silence, they should. When police say that “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law,” they mean it. Anything that you tell them can be used in court to argue against you. And although you may be careful not to reveal any incriminating evidence, you never know how something can hurt you in a court of law.

If you waive your right to remain silent, there are two ways a court can hear those words. An officer might record your answers and play them back in a court of law, or an officer might write down a narrative of your conversation.

The latter option can be very harmful to your case. Because an officer takes notes and paraphrases the conversations, the court won’t hear your exact words. The court could end up hearing an incorrect interpretation of your dialogue- one that gets you a harsh punishment. A narrative can break your case, and you should avoid giving police the opportunity to use one in a court.

Why Waiting for a Lawyer Matters

A lawyer can ensure that you don’t say anything you regret. They can advise you on what actions you should take and how you can protect yourself. You can’t know what details or facts can hurt your case, but a lawyer knows. Without their advice, you may give police testimony that they need for a conviction.

Speaking in the heat of the moment can cause you to do (or say) something that you regret. When an officer arrests you, you might be intoxicated. If that’s the case, your judgment is not at its best. Instead of arguing with the officer or revealing something that you don’t want them to know, you should just sit there silently.

Answering questions after any stressful event is a bad idea, whether you’re sober or drunk. Asking for a lawyer gives you to process the events. It may give you the time you need to have some clarity. Maybe the event leading to your arrest didn’t happen the way you initially thought. Maybe waiting for a lawyer gives you time to remember something important about the incident. Or, perhaps your adrenaline finally balances out, and you can think clearly.

In any situation, invoking your right to remain silent and asking for a lawyer can be the difference between a conviction and freedom. Find an experienced lawyer who can represent you.