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.

Cherry blossoms bloom around the Supreme Court in Washington in this March 27 photo.

The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case examining when the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination can trigger a civil lawsuit against an interrogating police officer.

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.

“Use of the coerced statements at trial is not necessary for Paul to assert a claim for violation of his rights under the Fifth Amendment,” the appeals court said. Instead, the panel interpreted the constitutional protection more broadly, finding that it covers any coerced statement used in a criminal case.

Specifically, the court cited three non-trial instances when it would apply: “When it has been relied upon to file formal charges against the declarant, to determine judicially that the prosecution may proceed, and to determine pretrial custody status.”

Lawyers for Jensen had asked the Supreme Court to take up the case and reverse the Ninth Circuit decision. They argue that the Fifth Amendment should only apply to statements at trial.

Judges in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Circuits in Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., and New Orleans, have upheld this view. But judges in the Second, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, have held the broader view that the protections apply whenever the coerced statement is used in a case in which charges are filed.

In declining to hear the Stoot case, the high court’s action lets the Ninth Circuit ruling stand, but it leaves intact the split among the circuits on the issue.

A chill on interrogations?

Seattle Lawyer Robert Christie warned in his brief on behalf of Jensen that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling would have a chilling effect on law enforcement officers preparing to conduct interrogations. He said the legal precedent would make officials reluctant to conduct interrogations for fear of being sued later.

Lawyers for Paul and his parents said in their own brief that the Ninth Circuit had properly analyzed the issue. Lawyer Michael Andrews of Everett said police officers who follow the rules have nothing to fear, but those who violate them should be held accountable.

The Fifth Amendment protections may be enforced not only through the suppression of coerced statements, he wrote, but also through civil lawsuits seeking compensation for violations of individual rights.

“The result of [Jensen’s] position is that an individual may be subject to all of the evils of intentional psychological coercion and deprivation of human dignity … and not have any remedy for that violation other than mere suppression,” Mr. Andrews wrote.

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