WASHINGTON – A Supreme Court case heard Tuesday could have widespread impact on the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
The case considers whether statements a Kansas police office made to his colleagues could be used against him in a criminal prosecution. Analysts say the Court’s ruling in this case may set a new precedent when it comes to compelled statements made before a criminal trial has taken place.
The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” It thus intends to protect individuals from self-incrimination and allow defendants to give complete testimony without fear of their words being used against them.
The plaintiff in the case is Matthew Vogt, a former police officer from Hays, Kansas. When Vogt was applying for a new job at the police department in neighboring Haysville, he disclosed to his potential employers that he had “kept a knife” he had obtained while working in Hays, instead of turning it in.
The Haysville police department ended up offering Vogt the job, conditional upon him reporting the possession of the knife to the Hays police department. Vogt reported the knife and was instructed by Hays police to submit a more detailed report. He did, and then tendered his two-weeks’ notice of resignation to accept the job in Haysville.
The Hays police reported the knife to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. At a “probable cause” hearing, the state of Kansas introduced Vogt’s report of possession of the knife into evidence. Vogt ultimately received two felony charges.
Haysville ended up withdrawing his job offer because of the pending criminal investigation.
Now Vogt and his lawyers are suing because they argue that his statements were unlawfully used to incriminate him, citing a 1967 Court decision, which ruled that statements obtained by implicitly threatening someone with dismissal are considered “compelled” and fall under the 5th Amendment’s self-incrimination protections.
The city of Hays is arguing that Vogt’s statement was not being made during a criminal trial, and thus do not fall under the protections.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Tuesday that since the majority of cases do not reach a trial and end in a plea bargain, restricting 5th Amendment protections to statements made in a trial would “shrink” it “to a vanishing point.”
Most of the eight justices reviewing the case expressed concerns about its facts and procedure. (Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch recused himself from the case because it came from his former court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit).
Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor all called case “odd,” and pointed to the complexities of the argument on both sides.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer even went so far as to question whether the case should even be heard by the Court, since none of the statements in question appear on the official record. Breyer later said the complexity of the case makes it “important in more ways than one.”
MSNBC legal analyst Danny Cevallos, in an interview, said he also thought the case seemed simple when he first considered it, but upon closer reading, he said that the arguments from both sides challenged principles he had previously held as a defense attorney.
He said that while he would typically agree with the argument that Vogt’s statements were used in violation of the 5th Amendment, the city of Hays’ argument made him overthink his initial assessment. The city argues that Vogt’s statements were made before the trial and thus excluded from the 5th Amendment protections.
“Initially, I thought well, this is a no-brainer, but as I kept reading, I started thinking maybe it’s not,” Cevallos said.
Cevallos said he thinks the arguments and potential outcome of the case can affect not only criminal procedure, but also how police officers do their jobs. Since officers are often called to give compelled statements during investigations, Cevallos said ruling in favor of the city could affect the way they approach their professions in the future. Officers may be incentivized to get “compelled statements” earlier in the scope of the criminal proceeding, and when it comes to their own statements, be more guarded in what they say.
Law enforcement officials have expressed the same concern. The Fraternal Order of Police filed an amicus brief in support of Vogt.
Cevallos said siding with Vogt would be the “easy decision” and maintain the status quo, while a decision for the city could potentially have wide-reaching impacts on criminal procedure across the country.
“This case is surely important as to the privilege against self-incrimination for regular citizens, but I think it’s also really important for officers like Vogt, who found that a statement that they were compelled to give ended up being used against them,” Cevallos said.