Dragnet

Harry Morgan and Jack Webb, who starred on the CBS television series "Dragnet." Morgan played Officer Bill Gannon, who worked alongside Webb's character, Sgt. Joe Friday.

“You have the right to remain silent.” If I followed any great criminal attorney’s advice, this is the point where I would shut up, but this is the newspaper, not the back of a patrol car, so I’m going to ignore my right to silence and talk a little about the Miranda warning. Please, don’t hold it against me.

This year the Miranda warning turns 50. If you go back and watch 1950’s television, police officers didn’t tell the accused they have the right to an attorney, because the now-ubiquitous warning didn’t exist. As part of Law Day on May 2, the Utah State Bar is going to be celebrating the 50-year anniversary of Miranda v. Arizona.

Although they haven’t consulted me, I’m thinking we should all binge watch old post-1966 “Dragnet” episodes. (The pre-1966 “Dragnet” shows don’t have the Miranda warnings, of course.) Sgt. Joe Friday is the quintessential by-the-book detective, so he dutifully advises everyone he arrests of their constitutional rights. Anyone who has consumed any quantity of police television shows or movies probably has the Miranda warning memorized.

By co-opting the warning as a plot device, the entertainment industry made the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel part of American culture. Hollywood educated us about our basic constitutional rights, and that is a good thing.

The Miranda warning proved effective in explaining the law to people through sheer repetition. In fact it was so effective, the procedure of requiring a specific recitation of legal information has been adopted wholesale by our legislators, requiring all types of warnings and canned phrases to be uttered.

In my own legal practice, Congress decided that the name of my law firm, “The Bankruptcy Firm,” wasn’t sufficient to inform people of what I do. So I am required under Title 11, Section 528(a)(4) to put on our website and Facebook page: “We are a debt relief agency. We help people file for bankruptcy relief under the Code." Just in case you didn’t know.

On the flip side, collectors have to give their own version of statutory debt collecting Miranda when they call to collect on a debt under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. So any time I call a debt collector about a client, I get to hear: “This is an attempt to collect a debt, any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”

In addition, laws protecting privacy have been warped into sort of a reverse Miranda when I’m dealing with debt collectors, who proclaim their right not to listen. Here is how the conversation goes:

Me: I’m calling about John Doe, Account Number 5556.

Collector: Are you John Doe?

Me: No, I am John Doe’s attorney.

Collector: I cannot give you any information on this account without John Doe’s permission.

Me: Look, I don’t need any information about the account, I just need to give you information about the account. You don’t have to tell me anything — I am the one giving you the information.

Collector: I cannot give you any information on this account without John Doe’s permission.

Me: I already have all the information— name, account number, social security number — I have a copy of your bill in front of me. I just need you to note that Mr. Doe has filed bankruptcy.

Collector: I cannot give you any information on this account without John Doe’s permission.

The conversation then continues in this maddening loop until I get hung up on or I get a supervisor that understands the difference between giving and receiving information.

But isn’t just bankruptcy and collections. If your car gets towed for improper parking in Utah, don’t despair — you will receive a copy of the Utah Consumer Bill of Rights Regarding Towing, where you will learn that you have the right to know that you are being charged an appropriate fee for having your car towed and you have the right to get documentation from the tow truck driver on when your vehicle was taken. Sounds more like a Bill of Obligations rather than a Bill of Rights, and it isn’t nearly as catchy as “you have the right to remain silent.”

I could fill the entire Sunday paper with examples of required legal warnings and required legal declarations of rights. Depending on which statutes or regulations you brush up against in your day-to-day life, the warnings will come thick and fast. Maybe this is the dark side of Miranda’s 50-year legacy — that rather than learn and exercise our legal rights independently, we need them spoon fed to us on constant repeat.

OK, now I’ll be silent. At least until next week.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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