Supreme Court lets stand ruling in self-incrimination case
The Supreme Court Monday declined to take a case that explored when police interrogations violate the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
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The case involved a 13-year-old boy who said his right against self-incrimination was violated when a police officer coerced an incriminating statement from him – even though the statement was never used in a trial.
The Fifth Amendment says in part that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” At issue in the case, Jensen v. Stoot, was whether the prohibition applies only to statements admitted as evidence during an actual trial, or whether it also applies whenever a coerced statement is used to advance a criminal case toward a trial.
The Supreme Court has come close to addressing that question, but has never answered it directly.
Federal appeals courts are split on this question. Judges in the three circuits have ruled that the Fifth Amendment prohibition applies only at a trial. Judges in another three have embraced the broader view.
A two-hour interrogation
The case centered on Paul Stoot II, a 13-year-old boy who was accused of sexually abusing a three-year-old girl in Everett, Wash. Police Detective Jon Jensen interrogated the Paul in the principal’s office at his middle school. The detective informed Paul of his Miranda rights but did not inform him that, as a juvenile, he had a right to have his parents present during the interrogation.
Mr. Jensen questioned Paul for roughly two hours, repeatedly rejecting Paul’s denials of wrongdoing. The detective used targeted interrogation techniques.
Eventually, Paul said he molested the girl, and wrote out a statement. He was charged with child molestation in the first degree.
A juvenile court judge determined that Paul did not understand that he had a right to remain silent and a right to have a lawyer and his parents present for the entire interrogation. The judge ruled that police coerced Paul’s confession. In addition, the judge ruled that the accusing girl’s statement was not credible. Both statements were thrown out and all charges against Paul were dropped.
Paul and his parents responded by filing a civil lawsuit against Jensen, claiming the police officer violated Paul’s Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.
When is the Fifth Amendment right triggered?
A federal judge threw the civil lawsuit out, finding that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination applies only to statements that are admitted as evidence against a defendant during a trial. Since Paul’s statements were thrown out before any trial, there was no constitutional violation.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court said that the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self incrimination is triggered whenever a coerced statement is relied upon to advance a criminal case.