On Monday, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled in a case that a defendant’s request for a lawyer cannot be used as automatic evidence of guilt.
The appeals court found that a prosecutor at the defendant’s trial had alleged that by requesting for a lawyer before responding to law enforcement, the defendant exhibited the “kind of conduct that someone who’s been caught.”
The court disagreed.
Elaborating on the Fifth Amendment rights of a defendant in not being forced to make self-incriminating statements, the 2nd Circuit said, “In order for the privilege to be given full effect, individuals must not be forced to choose between making potentially incriminating statements, and being penalized for refusing to make them.”
In the instant case, Tayfun Okatan, a US citizen, was convicted of trying to help an alien illegally enter the US. He had tried to help a German citizen, Munir Uysal, who had been stopped at the Canada border because he had previously overstayed a visa to US.
When Okatan entered US alone authorities followed him and found him waiting at a rest stop near another entry point. He was unaware that Uysal had already been arrested at that entry point for trying to enter the country illegally, before he reached there.
A border patrol agent approached Okatan and asked him whether he was waiting to pick someone up, and warned him that lying to a federal officer would constitute a crime.
Okatan asked for a lawyer. Law enforcement concluded it was sufficient admission of guilt.
The 2nd Circuit observed that in a precedent set earlier this year, the US Supreme Court had made it clear that a defendant has greater protection of Fifth Amendment rights when he asks for a lawyer rather than remaining silent.
The 2nd Circuit also cited a Supreme Court precedent that said a prosecutor may not comment on a defendant’s failure to testify at trial, as such a comment means “a penalty imposed by courts for exercising a constitutional privilege.”
The court said, “The Fifth Amendment guaranteed Okatan a right to react to the question without incriminating himself, and he successfully invoked that right.”
A new trial has been ordered in the case.