Constitutional Education Initiative

Stephen Howard — Stone River Law

Real People. Real Solutions.

Constitutional rights will always be stronger when they are understood and exercised. The Constitutional Education Initiative is part of our continuing efforts to promote a broader understanding and more effective exercise of the rights guaranteed by our Utah State Constitution and the Constitution of the United States.

Origins of the Initiative

In 2016, the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Miranda v. Arizona. Since 1966, Miranda has become arguably the most well-known Supreme Court decision in history. It is certainly the most-cited case in both television and movies. Rarely will you see a police or detective show where Miranda (or its associated rights and required warnings) is not mentioned at least once.

But for all of its celebrity and fame, Miranda can also seem like one of the most misunderstood decisions. What are the Miranda rights? Did Miranda create any rights? When do they apply? Who do they apply to? Do police have to “read you your rights”? What is the difference between Miranda rights and Miranda warnings? Did Congress overrule Miranda?

That celebration of Miranda in 2016 set the stage for what was to become our Constitutional Education Initiative. But the actors who provided the real motivation to begin the program included one prosecuting attorney and one criminal defense client.

A Client Who Listened

The client was an ordinary client in many ways. The case involved a mid-level felony charge with a standard set of allegations. No media coverage. No exciting facts. The client came from an ordinary background. What made this client stand out was that this client listened to what the arresting officer said.

The client was pulled over, handcuffed, placed in the back of a police car, and taken to the police station for questioning. He was under arrest. Before starting the interview (aka “interrogation”), the arresting officer read the legal warnings required by Miranda. As usual, the warnings read by the officer included the familiar phrase, “…anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

This is where listening became key. After reading these legal warnings, the officer asked the client if he would now be willing to answer some questions. The client responded, “No offense officer, but you just told me that anything I say ‘can and will be used against me.’ If that’s the case, then I think I probably shouldn’t say anything.”

Looking back, it seems obvious. Why would anyone want to tell police anything when the police have just promised to use it against them? Too many times we hear, but we do not listen and we do not understand.

A Prosecutor’s Perspective

Around the same time, a local city prosecutor in a mid-sized Utah town wrote a piece for the town’s official newsletter. The piece focused on the constitutional rights discussed in the Miranda opinion.

The prosecutor’s official title was “city attorney” and it is likely that the piece was intended to be a neutral explanation of important constitutional rights. It presented the legal history leading to certain court decisions and an explanation of the circumstances under which police may or may not or must perform certain actions. In almost every way, the piece was accurate.

The problem with the article was not so much the facts that were presented. Instead, the problem was with how readers perceived and understood what it presented. In conversations with various “real people” (i.e., non-lawyers), one of our attorneys learned that some who had read the piece were left with the (mistaken) impression that certain constitutional rights only applied in certain circumstances.

The misunderstanding is understandable. After all, prosecutors work with police officers and try to ensure that the officers understand what they can and cannot do. So when a prosecutor undertakes to write an article about constitutional rights, it is not surprising that the article focuses on what police can and cannot do.

Defense attorneys, on the other hand, work with individual clients – people who have individual rights that are protected and guaranteed by our state and federal constitutions. While it is important for prosecutors to educate police officers on the restrictions and duties required of them as a result of our individual constitutional rights, it is just as important (or likely more) for individuals to understand their own constitutional rights.

Informing the Individual

These incidents involving one client and one prosecutor served to emphasize the importance of a real understanding of the rights, duties, and responsibilities that are either created by or guaranteed by our state and federal constitutions.

Knowing the phrase “free speech” is very different from having an understanding of the reasons this right was included among those rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Knowing that “if you cannot afford an attorney one will be provided to you” is very different from understanding the reasons that legal counsel is so important in criminal court proceedings and understanding how and when the individual right to counsel can and should be exercised.

Knowing that the “privilege against self-incrimination” and the “right to remain silent” are essentially synonymous is also very different from understanding when it is appropriate to just shut your mouth (especially if you are innocent).

An academic understanding of the history of individual rights is wonderful. But developing a working knowledge of how those rights affect each of us in our daily lives is one of the most important ways that we can help protect and preserve the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted.

Putting the Plan in Motion

We have presented at schools and for scout groups. We have coached a local mock trial team and lectured in high school history classes. We meet daily with individuals who are dealing with the effects of both constitutional and unconstitutional conduct.

The goal of the Constitutional Education Initiative is to help real people, individuals and communities, to better understand the rights, responsibilities, and protections that are guaranteed by and flow from our state and federal constitutions.

New information and articles should frequently be available through this website. Please contact us directly with any questions or if you would like to arrange for a presentation.