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Understanding your right to counsel

If you have ever seen a television cop show, you may be able to recite the Miranda advisement from memory.  This advisement, which comes from a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, includes your right to remain silent and your right to legal counsel. Officers usually must inform you of these rights when they arrest you.

Exercising your right to remain silent may keep you from incriminating yourself. Even if you do not know the name and contact details of an attorney, invoking your right to counsel may be equally important.

What is the right to counsel?

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees you legal representation during most criminal trials. In practice, this right typically extends to all major phases of the criminal process, including custodial interrogations. When officers are questioning you, having an attorney present may help you better understand both your rights and your options. It may also keep officers in line.

How do you invoke your right to counsel?

You do not have to use special language to invoke your right to counsel. Simply telling officers you want an attorney is usually sufficient. When you ask for a lawyer, officers should stop questioning you until one arrives. Of course, you must stop talking, as prosecutors may later use any voluntary statements you make against you.

Can you prepare for your arrest?

If you expect officers may arrest you or question you in connection with a criminal offense, you may want to take steps to prepare yourself. Finding the name and contact details for a trusted attorney may be useful. If you have the opportunity, put this information on a card inside your wallet. Then, when officers arrest you, hand them the card and ask for a lawyer.

Asking for a lawyer is your fundamental right. While it may be intimidating or awkward to do so, officers cannot infer guilt from your request. Therefore, to protect your legal interests and possibly even your freedom, you may want to take advantage of everything the U.S. Constitution affords you.

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