Reading the Fifth: Supreme Court Exercises its Right to Remain Silent on What Comprises a “Criminal Case”

BACKGROUND

The Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment protects individuals from being compelled to bear witness against themselves in a criminal case. Courts have struggled with the scope of this protection, particularly regarding what comprises a “criminal case.” Does the term extend to pre-trial proceedings, such as a bail hearing? Has a person’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination been violated if the compelled statement in question is never used in a court of law?

Over the past thirty years, the Supreme Court has never directly resolved the question of what constitutes a “criminal case.” In dicta from United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez (1990), the Supreme Court indicated that the Fifth Amendment right was merely a trial right. But later, in Mitchell v. United States (1999) the Supreme Court indicated that the right extended to sentencing hearings.

The question of what comprises a criminal case was more recently addressed in Chavez v. Martinez (2003). In his plurality opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas declared that a statement was not a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination where the individual first hadn’t been charged with a crime and where the individual’s statements had not been used in a criminal case. Thomas further wrote:

“Mere coercion doesn’t violate the self-incrimination clause minus use of compelled statements in a criminal case against the witness…a ‘criminal case’ at the very least requires the initiation of legal proceedings.”

Three other justices disagreed, arguing that self-incrimination is complete the moment a confession is compelled, regardless of whether the statement is used at trial.

After the opinions in Chavez were released, a circuit split developed over the definition of a criminal case under the Fifth Amendment.

THE ISSUE

Does the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination include statements compelled in pre-trial proceedings?

THE SPLIT

The Third, Fourth and Fifth Circuits resolved this question in favor of Justice Thomas’s view, holding that the right against self-incrimination is only a trial right. In Renda v. King (2003), the Third Circuit determined that questioning while in police custody without providing Miranda warnings is not a Fifth Amendment violation if the individual is never charged with a crime and their responses are never used in a trial.

But on the other hand, in Vogt v. City of Hays (2017) the Tenth Circuit resolved this question in favor of a broader reading of the term “criminal case,” allowing the term to include certain pre-trial proceedings. The Second, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits take a similar view of the right against self-incrimination.

The facts of Vogt are unusual. In Vogt, a police officer for the City of Hays admitted during an interview with a neighboring police department that he had illegally retained a knife obtained during his employment as a police officer. The neighboring police department agreed to hire Vogt on the condition that he report the illegal retention of the knife to the Hays police department. Upon Vogt’s admission, Hays initiated a criminal investigation against him. The charges were dropped, but Vogt sued, claiming that the state violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by inducing him to confess.

The Tenth Circuit in Vogt concluded—after examining the text of the Fifth Amendment and the Founders’ intent—that the right against self-incrimination includes pre-trial proceedings. The court noted that the Fifth Amendment makes no mention of “trial” or “criminal prosecution,” instead using the term “criminal case.” The court pointed to Counselman v. Hitchcock (1892) wherein the government argued that a witness could not invoke the Fifth Amendment in a grand jury proceeding because it was not a “criminal case.” The Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument there, holding that the “criminal case” of the Fifth Amendment is a broader term than the Sixth Amendment’s “criminal prosecution.”

Additionally, to determine the meaning of “criminal case,” the Tenth Circuit consulted the most prominent dictionary of the Framers’ era: purportedly Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. In this dictionary, “case” was defined as “a cause or suit in court.” This definition, where “suit” is understood to be nearly synonymous with “cause,” indicates that the Framers understood the criminal case to encompass more than merely the trial. From these facts, Tenth Circuit concluded that the right against self-incrimination is more than just a trial right.

LOOKING FORWARD

The City of Hays appealed the Tenth Circuit’s decision in Vogt, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari on September 28, 2017. The case was argued before the Court on February 20, 2018; however, whether this split will be resolved by the Vogt appeal is yet to be seen. Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor both noted the case was “odd,” and Justice Breyer even questioned whether the strange and distinguishing facts of Vogt made it an appropriate one for the Court to take. The Supreme Court has the option to dismiss the case as improvidently granted, but it is likely that the Court will publish an opinion resolving this constitutional issue soon.

On a constitutional question of this magnitude, let’s hope the Supreme Court doesn’t choose to plead the Fifth.

Does Pre-Trial Detention Toll a Term of Supervised Release?

Supervised Release

For some people who are convicted of a criminal offense, a sentence can include a term of supervised release (also known as special or mandatory parole). Under 18 U.S.C. § 3624, the federal supervised release statute, a term of supervised release begins on the day that a person is released into the custody of a parole officer. The federal supervised release statute also provides that the term of supervised release is tolled during any period where the person is imprisoned in connection with a conviction for a different federal, state, or local crime.

The Issue

Jason Mont began a five-year period of supervised release on March 6, 2012. On June 1, 2016, Mr. Mont was arrested on state charges and held in pre-trial detention until he pleaded guilty in October 2016. In June 2017, Mr. Mont’s supervised release was revoked, and he was ordered to serve an additional 42 months for violating his supervised release. In United States v. Mont (2018), Mr. Mont claimed that the court did not have jurisdiction to revoke his supervised release, arguing that his supervised release ended on March 6, 2017 (five years after he was initially released). Following circuit precedent established by United States v. Goins (2008), the Sixth Circuit held that pretrial detention that leads to a conviction counts as time “in connection with a conviction,” as described in the federal statute.

The Split

Several circuits have spoken to whether time served in pretrial detention counts as time “in connection with a conviction” for the purposes of the federal supervised release statute, in addition to the Sixth Circuit’s previous ruling in Goins. The Fourth Circuit in United States v. Ide (2010), the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Molina-Gazca (2009), and the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Johnson (2009) have all held that pretrial detention counts for the purposes of the federal supervised release statute. In contrast, the D.C. Circuit in United States v. Marsh (2016) and the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Morales-Alejo (1999) held that time served in pretrial detention does not qualify.

The Ninth Circuit is the only circuit that has directly addressed the statutory language in the federal supervised release statute:

“A plain reading of this language…suggests that there must be an imprisonment resulting from or otherwise triggered by a criminal conviction. Pretrial detention does not fit this definition, because a person in pretrial detention has not yet been convicted and might never be convicted.”

In Mont, the Sixth Circuit explicitly rejected this interpretation.

Looking Forward

This case has not attracted much attention within the legal community since the Sixth Circuit’s ruling was handed down this past February, but it does have important ramifications for persons whose sentences include a period of supervised release. With six circuits having weighed in on opposite sides of a matter of federal statutory interpretation, the time is ripe for an aggrieved party to petition the Supreme Court for a definite ruling on this issue. Mr. Mont has ninety days from the date of the Sixth Circuit’s judgment to file a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court – while this deadline has not passed, it is not yet clear whether he will file a petition. In the alternative, given that this issue arises out of different interpretations of a federal statute, Congress could pass a bill to amend the current statute and clarify whether pretrial detention that leads to a conviction counts as time served in connection with a conviction.

Negotiate and Chill: How (and Whether) The Time for Plea Negotiations Can Be Excluded Under the Speedy Trial Act

Background

The Speedy Trial Act requires that any information or indictment charging a defendant with an offense must be filed within thirty days from an individual’s arrest or summons in connection with the crime. 18 U.S.§ 3161 (b).

This means that the government has thirty days from the time someone is arrested or summoned to charge that person with a crime.

However, certain periods of time—or delays—can be excluded from the Speedy Trial thirty days. For example, under 18 U.S. § 3161(h)(1), delays “resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant” can be excluded. The statute gives a non-exhaustive list of eight delays that would count as “resulting from other proceedings”:

(A) determining “mental competency or physical capacity”

(B) trial related “to other charges against the defendant”

(C) interlocutory appeals

(D) pretrial motions

(E) the transfer of the case or removal of a defendant

(F) transportation of a defendant if not unreasonable

(G) a court consideration of a proposed plea agreement

(H) proceedings “under advisement by the court”

Delays “resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant” are automatically excludable from the Speedy Trial thirty days.

But a delay can still be excluded under other provisions in § 3161, such as (hint) 18 U.S. § 3161(h)(7), under which a delay resulting from a continuance granted to serve “the ends of justice” can be excluded. To be excluded, the reasons the delay serves “the ends of justice” must be set in the record.

The Split

As you might imagine, the real fights happen in the “including, but not limited to” space created by 18 U.S. § 3161(h)(1). For example, circuits cannot come to an agreement on whether plea negotiations are automatically excludable as “resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant.”

The Second, Fifth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits have held that delays resulting from plea negotiations are only excludable under § 3161(h)(7)—where the judge makes findings on the record that the delay serves “the ends of justice.”

These Circuits determined that automatic exclusion only works for delays related to official judicial proceedings because those enumerated examples in 18 U.S. § 3161(h)(1) all relate to official judicial proceedings. The Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Mathurin (2012) stated that:

“'[P]lea negotiations’ are informal discussions between the parties and are directly controlled by the parties, not the court.” (quoting United States v. Lucky (2d Cir. 2009)).

Thus, the court held, plea negotiations are only excludable if the judge makes findings on the record that the delay serves “the ends of justice.”

On the other hand, the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Sixth Circuits have held that delays resulting from plea negotiations are automatically excluded as “resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant.” The Sixth Circuit, in United States v. White (2017) held that:

“Although the plea-bargaining process is not expressly specified in § 3161(h)(1), the listed proceedings ‘are only examples of delay ‘resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant’ and are not intended to be exclusive.”

Takeaways

This split is ripe for Supreme Court review and a cert petition is pending.

It is important for the split to be resolved because defendants should be treated the same across jurisdictions. Also, what good is the Speedy Trial Act if defendants are unsure when they will be charged or how the Speedy Trial Act applies to their situation?

Although a look into statutory construction could resolve this split, interesting policy perspectives are at play regarding plea bargaining incentives—how would automatic exclusion of plea negotiations influence the parties to come to an agreement, if at all?

Whether plea agreements are automatically excludable or not, though, it is certainly better that everyone know for sure.