Pleading the 5th: You Better Know You Don’t Want to Say “Nothing”

It is safe to say everyone (or just about everyone) is familiar with a person’s right to remain silent when being questioned by the police. The Fifth Amendment right to remain silent says that an officer cannot force you to make a confession (to speak) and then use that confession against you in a criminal case. This is great because it demonstrates that the law wants to protect individuals from abuse of power by the police. But … it’s not that simple.

In Williams v. State, the Court of Appeals of Maryland ruled that the defendant’s statement, “I don’t want to say nothing” followed by the words “I don’t know” during police interrogation (questioning after an arrest) was not enough to prevent the State from using the defendant’s confession against him. In the law, there are these situations known as grey areas, events where the application of the law is unclear. Williams’ case is an example of one of those situations, at least according to a majority of the court.

Williams was arrested in connection with a shooting where the victim died. From the moment Williams was taken into custody, he told officers he did not know anything about the shooting and did not want to speak to them. Nonetheless, the officers continued to cut Williams off to explain it was part of their job to read Williams his rights. These rights are referred to as Miranda rights and include law enforcement telling a suspect he or she has the right to remain silent.

A person invokes (asserts/makes use of) the right to remain silent by clearly demonstrating that he or she does not want to talk. There are different ways an individual can invoke the right to silence in a manner that creates no confusion as to whether an officer can continue with questioning. It can be through a combination of words and body language. A person must, however, use words to invoke this right. Remaining silent during questioning is not enough.

Under the law, once there is a clear invocation, a sort of magical moment is created where officers are required to stop questioning. If they do not, anything the suspect says cannot be used to show his or her guilt in committing the crime charged. The judges in this case disagreed on whether or not Williams’ statement met this standard.

Three judges thought Williams’ statement was clear. And it’s likely that many people would agree. This is what makes the Court’s ruling problematic. Outside of lawyers and judges, people do not understand that a suspect who decides to use his (or her) right to silence and communicates this to an officer has done all that is required of him. His (or her) words are then analyzed by a court to determine if it was clear.

Further, the law says that a court, in doing the above analysis, cannot consider what the officer knew. This makes it even more difficult for you, or any other individual, to benefit from the protection the law provides you. This issue raises the question of how people’s everyday way of speaking factors into the law. Therefore, we STRONGLY advise that if you are a witness to a crime, who is at or near the scene of the event, and are questioned by the police, say these words, “I want to talk to a lawyer. I will not make any statements until I am advised by a lawyer. I want to remain silent.”

You are now better informed of what to do. You also have the option of learning even more by contacting Fred Antenberg, an attorney in Howard County, Maryland, who has handled criminal cases for over 30 years in Howard County and surrounding counties in Central Maryland. Call (410) 730-4404 now for a Free Initial Consultation.