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Rants And Raves: Is Dirty Harry Getting His Way?

Pop Culture And The Recent Supreme Court Ruling

Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry on a suspect's rights.

A recent Supreme Court ruling suggests we are moving closer to Dirty Harry’s point of view than Serpico’s.

I know, I’m a film critic not a court reporter, but sometimes there are things that happen in the real world that pop culture can comment on in interesting ways. So bear with me.

On June 17, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 ruling – in regard to the case of Genovevo Salinas – stating that a suspect's silence can be used against him if it comes before being informed of the right to remain silent. The Fifth Amendment protects Americans from forced self-incrimination, but this Supreme Court decision seems to chip away at that and -- to put it in pop-culture terms -- move a little closer to Dirty Harry’s point of view.

Thanks to a plethora of cop movies and TV shows, most people know the Miranda Rights that officers are supposed to read to people they arrest and question. Although it varies from state to state it essentially says:

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you at interrogation time and in court.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

The poster for "Dirty Harry."

In the original “Dirty Harry” film (see clip above), Clint Eastwood’s iconoclastic (some have gone as far to call him fascist) cop is forced to let a man he’s positive is a serial killer go free because he didn’t properly inform him of his Miranda Rights and didn’t conduct a legal search. As Harry says to his superior, “I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.”

I have to confess that in a film like “Dirty Harry,” where everything is presented as a certainty – Harry is right, the suspect is guilty, the police captain is an idiot – I can wholeheartedly cheer Harry on. Seeing justice done, whether it’s through the legal system or vigilantes, can be deeply satisfying in a film. Just look to the successful “Death Wish” films that came out when crime was high and people felt helpless.

Or take “Star Chamber,” in which Michael Douglas is a judge who joins some vigilante justices who covertly retry cases in which they feel guilty people got off on technicalities. “Dirty Harry” and “Star Chamber” both address a sense of frustration people can feel if they think guilty people are getting away with, well, murder.

Films tap into that frustration and audiences, who are often caught up more in the emotion rather than the reality of the situation, applaud what they see on the screen ... even if it’s a cop denying a suspect his rights, or the dismissal of the fundamental basis of our legal system that is supposed to view people as innocent until proven guilty.

I’m no legal expert, so the nuances of the ruling may escape me. But it feels like it is chipping away at something we have grown to expect as a basic right. Granted, the ruling in Salinas only applies to non-arrest situations, so it is not prompting any changes to the current Miranda warning, which is only required once a suspect has been placed under arrest. But is does signal a change.

It concerns me when Justice Samuel Alito says of the Fifth Amendment, "It has long been settled that the privilege 'generally is not self-executing' and that a witness who desires its protection 'must claim it.' " The use of the word “privilege” rather than “right” worries me, maybe in legal terms there’s no difference, but I feel that a right is something I’m entitled to whether I’m aware of it or not; a privilege sounds like something a little less concrete and dependable.

I will again return to my turf of pop culture for more examples. In “Star Chamber,” Douglas’ judge soon sees the danger of going outside the law to dispense justice, and even Dirty Harry finds himself singing a different tune in “Magnum Force,” when he faces a group of vigilante cops who reject both Miranda and the notion that you are innocent until proven guilty. Here’s the exchange Harry has with the corrupt Lieutenant.

Lieutenant Briggs: You're a good cop, Harry. You had a chance to join my team, but you decided to stick with the system.

Harry Callahan: Briggs, I hate the goddamn system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I'll stick with it.

Wow! Even Dirty Harry admits that maybe we need some of the rules and regulations of the system. It may be flawed but it’s necessary. And it’s even more necessary in the real world where we don’t know in certain terms who is guilty and who is innocent.

In the one-man show “Clarence Darrow,” Henry Fonda plays the famous lawyer and civil libertarian, and as Darrow he notes that he would rather see guilty men go free rather than one innocent man condemned. So if we can’t have perfection, we should at least err in the direction of making sure the innocent are protected, even if it means sometimes the guilty slip through as well. Some might say if you are innocent you have nothing to worry about. But if that were really the case we wouldn’t have organizations like the Innocence Project.

I will end with this comic scene from the “21 Jump Street” remake. Hopefully, the lack of respect the two rookie cops display for Miranda will remain a funny gag in this comedy and not become a reflection for how that basic right is viewed in the real world. And hopefully this Supreme Court decision is not a sign that the Fifth Amendment is in danger of being weakened.

21 Jump Street: Miranda Rights

A scene regarding the Miranda Rights from the "21 Jump Street" remake.

Suggested films: “Dirty Harry,” “Magnum Force,” Star Chamber,” “Death Wish,” “Clarence Darrow,” “The Brave One,” “First Monday in October”

Suggested articles: Huffington Post, L.A. Times, The New American

And check out this video of a “law school professor and former criminal defense attorney tells you why you should never agree to be interviewed by the police.”

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