Asking for a lawyer is not evidence of guilt


When the United States Supreme Court decided that horrible Salinas v. Texas – that silence is not the same as invoking your right to silence – it left many questions unanswered: primarily, if a person does invoke his right to be silent, can the prosecution still use that invocation as proof of guilt?

In Salinas, SCOTUS said that since Salinas had not properly invoked his privilege, his silence could be used against him. In a post providing commentary and analysis on that issue, Orin Kerr at Volokh asked two questions:

Finally, I have two major questions about how Salinas is supposed to work in practice. The first question is obvious: How clear an invocation of the Fifth Amendment right does it need to be?

Second, and perhaps more interestingly, it’s unclear to me what is supposed to happen when a suspect outside of custody clearly asserts his Fifth Amendment privilege.

The Second Circuit answered that second question today: the invocation is sacrosanct and cannot be used a evidence of guilt. In US v. Okatan [PDF], the court was confronted with the case of Mr. Okatan who tried unsuccessfully to smuggle one Uysal – a German citizen – into the U.S. illegally. He failed: Uysal was turned away, although Okatan – a citizen – was allowed entry. The next day, Uysal was found at a border checkpoint and arrested and Okatan was spotted in a car in the vicinity and tailed to a rest area where an Officer Boucher pulled up behind his car, activated his lights and told him to remain inside the vehicle. Then:

Boucher walked over to Okatan’s car, identified himself as a border patrol agent and asked Okatan if he was a United States citizen. Okatan said that he was and handed over his passport. Boucher then asked why Okatan had passed the rest area on the east side of the highway and made a U-turn to enter the Beekmantown rest area. Okatan replied that he had to use the bathroom.

Boucher warned Okatan that lying to a federal officer is a criminal act and asked whether he was there to pick someone up. Okatan said that he wanted a lawyer. At that point, Boucher placed Okatan under arrest and transported him to the Champlain border patrol station.

Okatan was arrested and filed a motion to suppress statements made to Boucher after his invocation of his right to counsel1, which was granted by the trial judge.

At trial, Boucher testified about the demand for a lawyer and the prosecutor argued – as feared pre and post-Salinas – that the request for a lawyer was indicative of guilt.

After all, only the guilty need lawyers. If you haven’t done anything, you will answer our questions, even if those answers will incriminate you2.

The new warning, if the Government’s rationale prevails, should be: “You’re under arrest. You’re screwed. Anything you say or don’t say or do or don’t do will be used as conclusive proof of guilt. Do Not Pass Go. Go Straight To Jail.”

Luckily the Second Circuit wasn’t buying this. Applying the novel issues presented by Salinas, the court found that first: Okatan did invoke his privilege against self-incrimination, unlike Silent Salinas and that he was entitled to invoke that privilege3.

Second, the court then explored whether the prosecution “may use a defendant’s assertion of the privilege against self-incrimination during a noncustodial police interview as part of its case in chief” and concluded that “it may not”.

Relying on the rationale of Griffin v. California, the court held that to permit comment by the prosecution on the invocation of the privilege would be to impose a penalty on the exercise of Constitutional rights.

Here we had a situation of a man, who by sheer dumb luck, managed to navigate the complex and moving obstacle course that the judiciary has set up en route to the invocation of Constitutional rights and yet the prosecution wanted to take that turn it to its advantage yet again.

When we live in a world where “I want a lawyer” is de facto evidence of guilt, we will live in a world where that lawyer wouldn’t even be able to help us.

As luck would have it, I suspect Okatan might be on the fast-track to SCOTUS, so if you want to take bets on how fast that police state might arrive, you might want to do it now.

H/T: Jurist.

Update: Scott has a post on Okatan too, which seems to be essentially in agreement with my take.


  1. Which is an unequivocal invocation of his privilege against self-incrimination: see Fare v. Michael C., 442 U.S.707, 719 (1979)
  2. “To sustain the privilege, it need only be evident from the implications of the question, in the setting in which it is asked, that a responsive answer to the question or an explanation of why it cannot be answered might be dangerous because injurious disclosure could result.” Hoffman v. United States, 341 U.S. 479, 486-87 (1951).
  3. It’s important to note at his point that if this were a CT State Court case, we wouldn’t be having these discussions about entitled to invoke: Okatan would be held to be “in custody”. Our standard is stricter than the Federal standard for custody.

9 thoughts on “Asking for a lawyer is not evidence of guilt

  1. Pingback: Second Circuit Protects Prearrest Invocation of Rights | Simple Justice

  2. Daniel

    I’m curious. What about me where I just don’t like talking to the cops because I don’t like cops (I’m a former cop, so I know most of them are not likeable, LOL)? Can I remain silent for that reason, and thus not be suspected of a crime or be assured my silence won’t be used as “evidence of guilt.”

    However, it is almost impossible (if not impossible) to go one day without committing some crime or offense, even if all it is is driving 1 m.p.h. over the speed limit or briefly be distracted while driving. At times, we might even be suspected of something that someone else did, and not even know it. Would my silence in the face of a wrongful accusation be evidence of my guilt?

    These questions are scary to me when I think they could go to the currently constituted Supreme Court, or the just as bad California supreme court, someday.

  3. Nick

    Salinas sucks, but it is fairly easily distinguishable even in a pre-mIranda context. It was an answer question after question, the silence on two questions, then answer question after question.
    Certainly, it will be the basis of horrible cases on the state level, but as this case shows, the feds are probably going to honor the narrow scope.
    Until the next packing of the court with even more “tough on crime” judges.

  4. Wes Oblander

    Okatan essentially write his ticket for an uninvited vacation by invoking his right to an attorney. Silence would have likely done the same thing, though maybe a little quicker.

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