The right against self-incrimination is a well-known part of the U.S. Constitution, but it is not always well understood. Applying this principle in the real world, with all of its ambiguity and uncertainty, has proven quite challenging for the courts. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled on a claim that police violated a person’s First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights by allegedly retaliating against a person after he refused to answer their questions. The court ruled for the plaintiff on his Fourth Amendment claims but not the other claims. Alexander v. City of Round Rock, No. 16-cv-50839, slip op. (5th Cir., Apr. 18, 2017). The case is a civil lawsuit, rather than a criminal prosecution, but its interpretation of the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination could affect future Texas criminal cases.
The Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination generally means that a person cannot be compelled or coerced into saying something that could place them in criminal trouble. A refusal to answer questions because of this right is commonly known as “pleading the Fifth.” The Fifth Amendment has also been interpreted as requiring courts to suppress confessions by defendants that were not given voluntarily. The caselaw remains unclear on which remedies may be available when a Fifth Amendment violation occurs outside the context of a custodial interrogation.
According to the court’s statement of the facts of the case, all drawn from the plaintiff’s complaint, an officer stopped the plaintiff “in a hotel parking lot after observing what he perceived as suspicious activity.” Alexander, slip op. at 1. The plaintiff stated that he had stopped his vehicle and gotten out to look for a stray cat he had seen. He told the officer that he would not answer any of his questions.
After backup arrived, the officers allegedly “forcibly removed [the plaintiff] from his car, handcuffed him, and…arrested him for resisting a search.” Id., see also Tex. Pen. Code § 38.03. The arrest allegedly included “one officer press[ing] a boot or knee on the back of [the plaintiff’s] neck as his face was ‘mashed into the concrete.’” Alexander at 3. He was never charged with a criminal offense.
The plaintiff filed suit for violations of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Texas Constitution. The district court dismissed the case, based in part on the defendants’ qualified immunity. The Fifth Circuit reversed this ruling with regard to the Fourth Amendment claims, finding that the police may have lacked a reasonable suspicion to stop the plaintiff and that the plaintiff’s actions did not appear to match the offense of “resisting a search” as defined by § 38.03.
The Fifth Amendment claim was based on the plaintiff’s allegation that his arrest was in retaliation for his refusal to answer questions. The district court held that his “allegations were merely formulaic and conclusory and did not state a valid claim for retaliation.” Alexander at 12. The appellate court was equally dismissive, stating that the right against self-incrimination only “protects a defendant from being coerced into making an incriminating statement, and then having that statement used against him at trial.” Id. at 12-13. Since there were no charges, and therefore no trial, the court found that his Fifth Amendment rights were not violated.
These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.
Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has represented defendants in state and federal courts in West Texas for over 20 years. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you.
More Blog Posts:
Court Rules that State May Compel Fingerprint, but Not Passcode, Access to Cell Phone, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 8, 2015
Supreme Court Allows Prosecutors to Use Silence as Evidence of Guilt – Salinas v. Texas, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 20, 2013
Miranda Warnings at the Forefront of the Criminal Investigation in Boston, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 24, 2013