State v. Pinson: When Prosecutors Violate a Defendant’s 5th Amendment Right Against Self-Incrimination

Excellent decision from the WA Court of Appeals held that a Prosecutor violated a defendant’s 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination by arguing that the defendant was guilty because he chose to not talk to police when arrested.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2044259-1-II%20Published%20Opinion.pdf

Mason County Sheriff Deputy Nault responded to a reported domestic violence call. He contacted Stacey Campbell, who was in a parking lot across the street from her home. She said the defendant Jarad Pinson, her boyfriend, violently assaulted her. Deputy Nault saw red marks on her neck. Deputy Nault went into the home and arrested Mr. Pinson. During the arrest, Mr. Pinson was cooperative. He said he was drinking with his friends. When asked by officers if the situation became violent with Ms. Campbell, however, Mr. Pinson did not respond. he was arrested for Assault Second Degree Domestic Violence.

At trial, the judge granted the defense attorney’s motion in limine to suppress the Prosecutor from asking whether the fight was physical. However, defense counsel asked that question during cross-examination. Because of this, the judge ruled that Pinson’s defense attorney “opened the door” and gave the Prosecutor opportunity to cross examine the defendant on whether the fight was physical.

In closing argument, the Prosecutor said Mr. Pinson’s silence during arrest was substantive evidence of guilt. Although Ms. Campbell recanted her earlier accusations of assault while testifying on the witness stand, the jury nevertheless returned a guilty verdict on the Assault Second Degree charges. The case went up on appeal.

The law on prosecutorial misconduct is straightforward. To prevail on a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, a defendant must show that “in the context of the records and the circumstances of trial, the prosecutor’s conduct was both improper and prejudicial. However, when the defendant fails to object to the challenged portions of the prosecutor’s argument, he is deemed to have waived any error unless the prosecutor’s conduct was so flagrant and ill intentioned that an instruction could not “cure” the resulting prejudice to the defendant.

The 5th Amendment in the U.S Constitution states, “no person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Similarly, Article I, section 9 of the WA State Constitution follows this language. Both Constitutions guarantee a defendant the right to be free from self-incrimination, including the right silence. A defendant has the right to remain silent both prearrest and postarrest; i.e., both before and after a defendant is given Miranda warnings.

 Here, the Court of Appeals held that the Prosecutor’s statement was improper because in violated Mr. Pinson’s 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. More specifically, it was improper for the State to make closing arguments that infer guilt from the defendant’s silence. Even though defense counsel did not object, his failure to object did not waive the claim of prosecutorial misconduct because the conduct was so flagrant and ill-intentioned that an instruction would not have cured the prejudice.

The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Great decision. It’s a long-standing, basic principle that Prosecutors cannot infer a defendant’s silence as evidence of guilt. I’m pleased the Court acknowledged this basic principle.