Category Archives: fifth amendment

Asking for a lawyer is not evidence of guilt

monopoly-go-to-jail-card

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.

Free after 17 years

Late yesterday afternoon, 4 men walked out of the New Haven, CT criminal courthouse, free men for the first time in 17 years. Earlier in the day, they got to stand in court and hear the judge say that all charges against them were dismissed.

17 years ago, Sean Adams, Darcus Henry, Carlos Ashe and Johnny Johnson were charged with, tried and convicted of the murder of one Jason Smith and the shooting of Andre Clark. They all were sentenced to prison terms of over 75 years.

The main evidence against them at trial was the testimony of Andre Clark. Andre Clark, however, was himself the defendant in several other criminal charges. Prior to the Adams’ trial (I’m going to use Adams as shorthand for all the rest), Clark had pled guilty in that same New Haven courthouse and instead of facing 35-38 years in jail, had entered into an agreement that would cap his sentence at 4 years, with a right to argue for less in exchange for his testimony against Adams.

Clark testified against Adams. Under intense cross-examination, Clark denied that he had pled guilty, or had any deal with the prosecutor or had any expectation of leniency in exchange for testifying. In other words, he flat out lied. No prosecutor uttered a word to correct him.

It’s not like even with Clark, the State’s case was strong. From the Supreme Court opinion reversing their convictions [PDF]:

Finally, the fact that the evidence against the petitioner was hardly overwhelming is borne out by the  apparent difficulty that the jury had in deciding the case. The jury deliberated for ten days before reaching a verdict on the petitioner’s charges. Moreover, the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on any of the charges against two of the petitioner’s three codefendants, resulting in a mistrial as to them, and before reaching its guilty verdicts as to the petitioner and Henry, the jury requested that the testimony of Ogman, Andre, and Charles Clark be read back. Although not necessarily dispositive of the issue of the strength of  the state’s evidence, the foregoing considerations support the conclusion that the jury viewed the case as a  relatively close one.

Prosecutors have an independent an affirmative duty under Brady v. Maryland to disclose biases that witnesses might have if it could lead to their impeachment on the witness stand. A plea agreement for a significantly favorable sentence in exchange for testimony in another trial certainly qualifies as such. If there was any doubt that he received favorable treatment, it was dispelled at his own sentencing:

Although the court originally set sentencing for February 19, 1999, Andre was  not sentenced until September 14, 2001, after he had testified in all three trials stemming from the December  14, 1996 shooting, including the petitioner’s trial.At  Andre’s sentencing hearing, [the prosecutor] recommended that the court vacate Andre’s pleas on two of the charges  and impose an unconditional discharge on the third charge. In support of this request, [he] observed that Andre ‘‘ha[d] testified [in] three trials that I know of in which he was a gunshot victim and also an eyewitness. He’s being shown consideration for his truthful cooperation and testimony. . . . He’s been enormously cooperative.’’

But here, there were two prosecutors: one prosecuting Adams and one prosecuting Clark. They set up a sort of “firewall” between themselves, agreeing not to talk to each other about the other’s case. So when Clark testified at Adams’ trial that he had no agreement, that prosecutor didn’t actually know if that was untrue.

But that’s not good enough, said the Supreme Court – and the State agreed on appeal:

Of course, as the respondent now concedes, the state certainly did have a duty to disclose  Andre’s plea agreement, no less than it had a duty to correct Andre’s false testimony denying its existence, because the prospect of a lenient sentence gave Andre an incentive to curry favor with the state and the sentencing judge, an incentive that the petitioner and his codefendants were entitled to explore on cross-examination. See, e.g., State v. Ouellette, 295 Conn. 173, 190, 989 A.2d 1048 (2010) (‘‘[i]t is difficult to imagine a greater motivation to lie than the inducement of a reduced sentence’’ [internal quotation marks  omitted]); see also DuBose v. Lefevre, 619 F.2d 973, 979 (2d Cir. 1980)  (‘‘[u]nquestionably, agreements . . . to reward testimony by consideration create an incentive on the witness’ part to testify favorably to the [s]tate  and the existence of such an understanding is important for purposes of  impeachment’’)

Having found that there was a Constitutional violation and that the evidence was material to the trial, the Supreme Court had no choice but to vacate the convictions and return the matters to the trial court.

And that’s where we started, as did Adams and his co-defendants. And now they’re back. To start a new life; maybe a different life.

“I’m overcome with joy,” said Johnson’s mom, Gloria, after hugging her son.

“Justice finally prevailed,” declared Adams. “I don’t have time to feel bitter or hate. I’m just glad it’s over and done with.” He held onto his daughter as he moved through the crowd. “Finally, I get to be with her,” he said. “She was born while I was in jail.”

Darcus Henry has two 14-year-old sons, both of whose lives he’s missed out on.  “I feel like justice is served,” said Henry as he hugged Darcus, Jr.

Silence as guilt and the silent death of the Fifth Amendment

Consider the following scenario: you’re walking down the street to your favorite microbrewery when a police officer stops you. “Excuse me”, she says. “Do you live around here?” “Yes, yes I do.” “Have you heard seen any strange people hanging around here?” she follows up. “No, not really.” Maybe you have your hands in your pocket; maybe you’re wearing a hoodie; maybe you’re a minority. “Did you break into that apartment there and steal a TV?” she asks, accusingly.

Now, maybe you’re a smart person, or maybe you’ve read this blog or many like it, or maybe you’ve had a brush or two with the justice system before and something somewhere in the recesses of your brain says to you “Don’t answer that! You don’t have to say anything! Walk away!”.

It’s been drilled into you: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you”. It’s a phrase that’s spawned an empire and will keep Dick Wolf’s family from having to work for about two centuries.

So you remain silent. You walk away. She doesn’t like that. She arrests you. You go to trial because you’re innocent. And then the prosecutor asks the officer about that incident. She says you went silent all of a sudden when asked the incriminating question. Maybe she says you shifted your feet, or averted your gaze. Then the prosecutor argues to the jury – the 6 people that will decide whether you keep your liberty or lose it – that only guilty people avoid answering incriminating questions.

If you have nothing to hide, you won’t hide anything.

It’s pretty clear that post-arrest silence cannot be commented on – because really, why even have the right if you’re going to allow that, but yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that [PDF] pre-arrest silence can be equated to guilt.

That means, if you’re questioned by a police officer, before being arrested, and you refuse to answer a question, that silence is proof that you’re guilty.

Because, see, it’s not that you don’t have a right to be silent – we don’t know that for sure – but you have to explicitly invoke that right. Meaning you have to say it out loud.

“Sorry officer, but I refuse to answer your question.”

You know what I call that? A technicality. A technicality that has now erased a whole lot more of what was written into the Fifth Amendment for your protection.

So why this line? Isn’t the “Miranda” warning prophylactic, as we were just told? Isn’t that merely an “advisement” of an already existing right?

So do I have the privilege against self-incrimination or not? Does it matter if I’m arrested or not? Should it? I’m either incriminating myself or I’m not. Does my custodial status matter?

Orin Kerr, writing at Volokh, asks 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.

You really should read his entire post – and this one by fellow blawger bmaz, and this one at Cato and this one by Bobby G. F. – but I can answer that second one easily: what’s supposed to happen is that law enforcement respects the existence and invocation of those rights and stops questioning.

But that’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen is that they’re not going to advise anyone of these rights. They’re going to “manufacture” scenarios so as to elicit silences and then use those silences to form the basis for probable cause to arrest people. Can’t you just imagine that officer who says that “based on his training and experience”, “innocent people don’t make furtive gestures” and since you did and then “stared silently, with a guilty expression, at the floor”, there is probable cause to believe that you are, in fact, guilty?

I don’t trust them to not abuse this to arrest individuals they don’t have much else on, in an effort to get them into a custodial setting in a police department to further “question” them.

If silence is guilt, then is that enough for probable cause?

When a silence is as good as an admission, does it really matter how you question someone or what you ask them?

The State has already argued that it should have the authority to detain – and that’s a legal term meaning you’re not free to go – anyone on the street for no reason whatsoever. Now they can ask you questions and if you silently walk away, they get to claim you’re guilty because of that?

Do you feel the grip tightening? Do you feel trapped yet?

Perhaps it is easy for you to say – as it is for the august Justices of the Supreme Court – that only a guilty person would refuse to answer incriminating questions or speak up about their rights. But have you ever witnessed an “interrogation”? There’s a reason why false confessions is a growing area of social science study. And what of those with limited mental abilities, or language barriers?

The Constitution is not dependent upon your level of confidence or your proficiency in English. It exists, as it always has, as a document that has executed. It’s rights have been conferred and now we’re giving the exercise of those rights back to the control of the constabulary.

When those with power decide who gets what protection, eventually, no one gets any.

This is what blind deference to establishment in the name of safety has wrought.

But don’t keep silent about it; I might think you’re guilty.

 

“A deliberate pattern of improper conduct”

The long lament has been the unaccountability of prosecutors in the criminal justice system: they are given broad powers and responsibilities and then shielded at every turn from being held accountable for the myriad, tiny abuses that are committed on a fairly regular basis. Just last week we were all mourning the ineffectual Brady v. Maryland. We all screamed when Connick was announced, holding that prosecutors weren’t financially liable for misconduct impropriety. We all rolled our eyes when they changed misconduct to impropriety. We all roll our eyes when courts point out impropriety but refuse to name the prosecutors who committed that misconduct. But what isn’t at dispute is that prosecutors have a special role to play in the criminal justice system; their responsibilities are elevated and the standards they should be held to are higher.

A great deal is at stake in a criminal trial. The interests involved go beyond the private interests at  stake in the ordinary civil case.They involve significant public interests. . . . [T]he criminal jury trial has a role in protecting not only the liberty of the accused, but also the entire citizenry from overzealous or overreaching state authority.

Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145.

When presenting closing arguments, as in all facets of a criminal trial, the prosecutor, as a representative of the state, has a duty of fairness that exceeds that of other advocates. [A] prosecutor is not an ordinary advocate. His [or her] duty is to see that justice is done and  to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce prejudice and wrongful decisions by the jury.

State v.Moore, 69 Conn. App.  117, 130.

So believe me when I say that what the Connecticut Appellate Court did yesterday was truly extraordinary. It has happened maybe once or twice in the last decade or perhaps even two.

The opinion in State v. Santiago [PDF] starts thusly:

The defendant, Victor Santiago,appeals  from his conviction of felony murder in violation of  General Statutes § 53a-54c and murder in violation of General Statutes § 53a-54a, claiming that he was deprived of his due process right to a fair trial due to improper comments made by the prosecutor, Terence D. Mariani, Jr., during his closing and rebuttal arguments to the jury.

He also asks this court to invoke its  inherent supervisory authority over the administration  of justice to reverse his conviction in light of Mariani’s improper comments made during his closing argument to the jury and his deliberate pattern of making such comments in numerous other cases.

Because we conclude that Mariani has engaged in a deliberate pattern of improper conduct in this case and others, and he remains undeterred by pronouncements by this court and our Supreme Court that his conduct was improper, we believe that nothing short of reversal will have the effect of deterring him.

We thus reverse the defendant’s  judgment of conviction and remand the case for a  new trial.

Unheard of. Just simply unheard of. Not only does the opinion name the prosecutor, but also calls his conduct a “deliberate pattern”.

Judge Sheldon, who wrote the opinion, is absolutely correct: the only just penalty for repeated Constitutional violations and wanton disregard for trial and appellate court orders and cautions and reprimands is to reverse the conviction. What else can be done to drive home the message that prosecutors are not free to abuse the law and that the rules apply to them, too. If they are to be given a license to disregard Due Process with ease, then how can one with a straight face then hold defendants and defense attorneys to much higher standards?

Mariani did everything in this case he isn’t supposed to: he played on the jurors’ sympathies for the victim and witness, he demonized the defendant and his family and equated the prosecutor’s job with that of the jury’s. Each by itself would be a reversible Due Process violation. The court then lists 8 other cases in which Mariani’s conduct was censured by the Appellate or Supreme Court and he was admonished not to do so again. And yet he persisted.

It’s not that he’s not smart or that he doesn’t understand it: the only explanation can be that he just doesn’t care. To repeatedly, continually disregard instructions from judges and appellate courts about the impropriety of one’s actions can only signal that the subject thinks himself or herself to be above the law. This clearly got to the Court, which reasoned:

Mariani made several improper comments in this case, a felony murder case, and, in so doing, jeopardized the constitutionality of the trial proceedings. More troublesome, however, is his repeated and deliberate use of improper argument throughout other cases. Despite the fact that this court and our Supreme Court have repeatedly determined that Mariani has exceeded the  bounds of proper conduct, he continues to do so. We thus conclude, as our Supreme Court did in Payne, that “nothing short of reversal will deter similar misconduct in the future.” Id., 466.

Stunning, unprecedented and well deserved. The only question remains is whether the Supreme Court will reverse, because you know, criminals.

Van Poyck: FL’s bizarre death penalty farce continues

Van Poyck, the poster child for the batshit insane death penalty doings in Florida is one step closer to a June 12 execution, armed with attorneys that don’t know or have time for his case. Last time we checked in, lawyers had filed an emergency appeal with the Florida Supreme Court on Friday, May 17, arguing that they had neither the time, nor the knowledge, nor the expertise to represent Van Poyck in this expedited timeframe. The Florida Supreme Court was expected to rule late Friday.

It didn’t. It waited all weekend to rule late Monday. In what the Palm Beach Post calls “a deeply divided” ruling, the Court said – 4-3 naturally – that the execution would remain on track, although the deadlines for various filings were extended by a day here or there. The majority wrote a two page opinion stating:

“We deny the request for a stay of Mr. Van Poyck’s execution,” Justices Ricky Polston, R. Fred Lewis, Charles Canady and Jorge Labarga wrote in a terse two-page ruling. “Noticeably absent from these recent (court) filings is any substantive reason for granting a stay.”

I’ll give you a substantive reason: the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. But in their bloodlust and desire for finality, due process and the right to counsel are mere obstacles on what must be an ever shortening path.

This obsession with finality and speedy finality has always troubled me. Especially in cases where the sentence is irreversible, like death. It is often said by those with the taste of blood in their mouth that delay is a tactic used by the defense and every day the client spends alive is a victory. I found that argument most curious: for one, I’d rather be on the side that regards the extension of another individual’s life for even a day as a good thing and second, I’d rather be on the side that ensures that we proceed cautiously, carefully and certainly.

In an apparent effort to accommodate the three attorneys, the high court extended the deadlines of when they must file various appeals.

Instead of this Wednesday, Burton has until May 29 to rule on whatever motions are filed. Possible oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court are scheduled for June 6 instead of June 5. That would leave a week to launch appeals in federal court in hopes of stopping what would be the first execution for a Palm Beach County murder in 21 years.

The justices, however, said they didn’t want to hear from any outsiders. They rejected requests from the 1,700-member Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Sandy D’Alemberte to weigh in. On Friday, both the association and D’Alemberte, a former state lawmaker and past president and law school dean of Florida State University, said they wanted to explain problems with the death penalty process that has led to confusion in Van Poyck’s case.

What does it say when an institution (or perhaps institutions if you add Congress) that is designed to serve the people – all people – acts with such hubris and disdain for the voices of those very people? Have our laws become the playground of the present whims of 5 or 7 or 9?

What’s even more puzzling is that the defense attorneys, two of whom have never handled a death penalty appeal before and one who doesn’t know this client from a hole in the wall, asked for merely a 30 day extension. 30 days to ensure that Constitutional representation was provided. And apparently that’s too much. I guess once you have a taste for killing, it’s hard to let go. Isn’t that what they say about defendants? The only difference is that one murder is state sponsored and the other isn’t.

 

If I smoke a joint in a forest, have I smoked one at all?

I'm not as think as you stoned I am

I’m not as think as you stoned I am

Judge Kenneth Post of Michigan will start a 30-day suspension this Wednesday, having been reprimanded for

a terse exchange with Montcalm County attorney Scott Millard over whether Millard’s client needed to answer questions about recent drug use. Post was asking the questions to make sure Millard’s client would not test “dirty” the next time he gave a drug-testing sample.

Millard interjected and wouldn’t permit his client to respond to these questions on the grounds that the answers would incriminate him and thus violate his Fifth Amendment privilege. Post wasn’t having any of it. He was downright rude to Millard as this transcript shows:

JUDGE POST: (to the defendant) When they give you a drug test today, are you going to be clean or dirty?

MILLARD: (My client) is going to stand mute to that question, your honor.

POST:  He’s not going to stand mute. He’s either going to answer the question or I’m going to remand him to jail.

[…]

MILLARD: (My client) has a 5th Amendment right.

POST: Counsel, I’m setting bond. There’s two ways we can do this. I can give him 30 days from the date that he last used to be clean, or I’ll remand him to jail until such time as he’s clean and then we’ll go from there.

MILLARD: And I -

POST: Would you please be quiet? I really appreciate that. Thank you.

MILLARD: I apologize.

POST: (to the defendant) When was the last time that you used controlled substances? Let me have the date please.

MILLARD: Your honor, (my client) has a 5th Amendment -

POST: I’m not charging him with using controlled substance, Counsel. He’s not charged with that charge. I’m interested in getting a clean, honest bond response. Now, if you don’t want to do that, you can leave. Your call.

And on and on. Finally, perhaps sick of hearing Millard say Fifth Amendment, Post held him in contempt and ordered him remanded to custody. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed [PDF] the grievance finding of 30 days’ suspension for violating judicial ethics. Which is fine, I suppose. I don’t have an opinion on this either way, except that intolerance of the law and disrespect in the courtroom cannot and should not be tolerated no matter the source.

What I want to know is this: did the defendant have a 5th Amendment privilege in that circumstance? Or would any prosecution be barred by corpus delicti?

Another example: if I were to go to Officer Friendly patrolling my street as soon as I’m done writing this post and say “Hello Officer Friendly, I just wanted you to know that last week I snorted coke off a hooker’s belly”, could he arrest me? What if I said I’d driven drunk a month ago? I’ve clearly admitted to a violation of a criminal statute, but can I be arrested and prosecuted?

Is there a difference between incriminating myself and not being able to be charged with a crime? Have I incriminated myself (in the legal sense) while avoiding prosecution?

The principle of corpus delicti means that I cannot be prosecuted based solely on my confession; there must be independent evidence that a crime has occurred. Assuming that was the case in the excerpt above, did Millard’s client have a Fifth Amendment privilege?

This law school final counts for half of your grade. Govern yourself accordingly.

Depends on what you mean by justice: 50 years of Brady

It’s a brilliant concept, if you think about it: an adversarial system in which one side – the one trying to steal the liberty of the other – has to show all its cards up front. “Here”, they have to say “this is what we have against you and, oh, by the way, in the interests of justice, here’s what we have that might show that you didn’t do it.”

It’s the ultimate salvo in an open and fair system; where the goal is rigorous examination of the allegations, no tricks and traps by the government and an outcome that can then be reliably relied upon.

Justice. Such a grand notion; an admirable ideal. It is justice that prompted Brady v. Maryland – an unworkable, but yet noble attempt at drawing lines and taking stances:

The principle of Mooney v. Holohan is not punishment of society for misdeeds of a prosecutor but avoidance of an unfair trial to the accused. Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted but when criminal trials are fair; our system of the administration of justice suffers when any accused is treated unfairly. An inscription on the walls of the Department of Justice states the proposition candidly for the federal domain: “The United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts.” A prosecution that withholds evidence on demand of an accused which, if made available, would tend to exculpate him or reduce the penalty helps shape a trial that bears heavily on the defendant. That casts the prosecutor in the role of an architect of a proceeding that does not comport with standards of justice, even though, as in the present case, his action is not “the result of guile,” to use the words of the Court of Appeals. 226 Md., at 427, 174 A. 2d, at 169.

Perhaps it was a bit optimistic, but they can hardly be blamed for wanting the system to be above board; honest.

But it all got lost somewhere down the road. Why? Who knows. Politics, legislators baying for blood, a public with passions aroused – “tough on crime”, an overburdened system and overworked lawyers with a taste for resolution and no stomach for a fight? But it happened. And the calling was no longer “justice”, it was “convictions”.

Justice is never personal; winning always is. And when the nature of the game that one side is playing changes so dramatically that it becomes personal, the stakes are raised. Raised stakes lead to seeking the advantage and then Brady – and its very ideals – get turned on its head. Now the fox is the gatekeeper, not just the guardian: how do you know if something is exculpatory if they don’t turn it over? And the arbiter of what is “exculpatory” is that very prosecutor whose job it is to administer justice. Statements that cast doubt on the complainant’s version? Not believed by the prosecutor, so not exculpatory. You can imagine the machinations.

And when the goal becomes winning and convictions rather than justice, you get stories like this.

[Prosecutor Keller] Blackburn explained that House Bill 86 not only made a distinction between cocaine and crack cocaine and the weights of the drugs, but it also significantly changed the prison sentences associated with lower level felony crimes. Prior to the changes, fifth-degree and fourth-degree felonies carried the real possibility of prison time. Now, probation or jail time is more likely for first-time offenders. Third-degree felony crimes carried a maximum of five years in prison but now only three can be ordered.

“When you change the numbers, then negotiations get more difficult. If someone is only risking six additional months by not taking a deal, they’ll go to trial. It harms negotiations and pass costs to local communities,” Blackburn said. According to Blackburn, there are around 600 cases that come across his desk in a year. He said it’s not possible for the prosecution and defense to try that many cases, nor is it possible for the courts to handle such a load and taxpayers cannot afford that many cases. He said there is also additional stress placed on the probation department.

Did you get all that? Prosecutor Keller Blackburn is miffed that the legislature reduced penalties for low-level crimes, not because it offends justice, but because it makes his job harder. Prosecutor Keller Blackburn is more concerned with warehousing his fellow citizens, guilt or innocence be damned, because this makes it more difficult for him to put the squeeze on defendants.

Tough penalties were the worst thing this country did in the name of justice. It did exactly the opposite: it forced the hands of unwilling prosecutors and provided great ammunition for the sadistic ones. The greater the exposure in jail, the greater the chance of putting someone away for a disproportionate amount of time.

People ask why I do what I do. This is one reason. Not because I condone crime; not because I like it. But “justice” is hard to come by in the American system. Because of prosecutors like Keller Blackburn. Because there is no oversight of prosecutors. They can get away with almost anything because law and order and criminals and other buzzwords. And if ever found to have violated the Constitution, there is no punishment. Just a stern wag of the finger and be set free to do the same again and again, leaving how many untold victims in their wake while they pursue their quest of “convictions”.

Brady was a valiant effort. Too bad justice doesn’t mean what it used to.

[I swear to God if one of you says “hey, not all prosecutors are like that”, I will tie a peacock to your butt and sprinkle birdseed on your head. Of course they aren’t.]

H/T: SL&P.