Supreme Court to Determine Limits of Fifth Amendment

The Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could have a significant impact on the level and extent of citizens’ fifth amendment rights. The fifth amendment, popularly known as the right to avoid self-incrimination (“pleading the fifth”) is often believed to be universal and applicable at each and every stage of a criminal matter. As this case shows, that idea is very much in doubt.

Case Stems from Civil Dismissal

The case arose when a police officer allegedly retained a knife from his employer (the police department and thus, the city). Later he went looking for a new job, and when he applied to a different department, he told them about the knife. That department instructed him to inform his old department that he had retained it, which he did.

Sure enough, his old employer investigated it and then filed criminal charges against the officer, causing him to lose the job offer with the new police department.

At a preliminary probable cause hearing, the court determined that there was no probable cause, and dismissed the criminal charges. During the preliminary hearing, statements the officer had made incriminating himself were used.

Even though the criminal charges were dismissed, the officer went on to sue the police department and the state for a fifth amendment constitutional violation.

His lawsuit was dismissed because the court held that his statements were used against him at a preliminary probable cause hearing, which was not a “trial,” and thus the fifth amendment did not apply.

Supreme Court Takes the Case

The officer appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case.

The city argues that although people have a constitutional right against self-incrimination in any context, the officer here was never compelled to take the stand or to say anything against himself in an actual criminal trial—only at a pre-trial hearing, which usually only determines whether there is enough evidence to even allow a full criminal trial to go forward later on.

The officer is arguing that his incriminating statements were used for the purpose of ultimately obtain a criminal prosecution, so the fifth amendment should apply, even if the probable cause hearing itself was only preliminary and could not result in a prosecution.

There are numerous cases in which courts, including the Supreme Court, have called the fifth amendment a “trial right.” The officer points out that this did not apply to cases in which the Court was considering the amendment’s applicability to non-trial areas.

Outcome Could Have Drastic Effects

The outcome of the case could have far-reaching effects. On the one hand, if the court rules that a preliminary hearing is not a “trial,” a defendant could be forced to testify against him or herself in any hearing that is not actually a final criminal trial.

On the other hand, if the fifth amendment does apply, it would mean additional hearings to determine whether statements fall under the fifth amendment’s protections and should be excluded – for example, whether the statement is testamentary, was it compelled, is it actually incriminating, etc. This could mean significantly more time, legwork, and hearings before pre-trial probable cause hearings.

Your constitutional rights should be protected from arrest through trial. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights if you are arrested or charged with a crime.

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