What the Supreme Court ruling on self-incrimination means

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Cnn justice correspondent Clarissa Ward sits down with Nina Totenberg and Geoffrey Stone of NPR to discuss the controversy over last week’s Supreme Court decision. The case in question involved the high court’s decision to overturn a California conviction.

Totenberg: The justices, in a 7-2 ruling, decided the case in favor of a California police officer who had been charged with kidnapping, and was acquitted of kidnapping. He appealed that verdict, arguing that the way the case was tried did not give the jury complete and accurate information about the defendant.

Stone: It’s really a sign of desperation. And in California, the attorney general has said if the courts start to believe in that, he’s going to take every case in California to a reversal.

CLARISSA WARD: Are you worried at all about the broader implications of that, the total erosion of the 6th Amendment?

Totenberg: I think it’s hard to imagine anyone would have expected the Supreme Court to hold that the 6th Amendment did not provide for self-incrimination during a trial. And indeed, when the defendant appealed, he said in essence, you know, that is wrong, you don’t always have to name the target. They were not required to name the target. And you don’t have to admit guilt, to a jury under oath in a criminal trial. It doesn’t mean any other.

WILLIAM WESTER: In your thoughts, there are a lot of people who claim that the 6th Amendment rights are being violated all the time. Is it that complicated?

Stone: I think it’s in the middle.

Totenberg: This is what we get in these days.

Stone: They say the 6th Amendment guarantees to not be taken into custody without probable cause. And when there is probable cause, then people are entitled to this kind of privilege. The other kind is to not incriminate himself, not to name his target, or to name all of his targets, as long as he can show some evidence. And what the police and prosecutors are saying, and why there is such intense pressure now to recognize and say the whole thing doesn’t work, is because of these high-profile cases like the Casey Anthony, the Dassey case.

It’s a popular message to say, the 6th Amendment is not providing adequate protection for people and that there is a widespread conspiracy to undermine the rights of people who are suspected of having committed crimes. They blame the media, they blame the police, they blame everyone, except, of course, the prosecutors. That’s why they want to be able to take these cases out to trial in any way they can. So it’s a dynamic we have never seen before.

WILLIAM WESTER: This relates to what I was going to ask about. Under the Constitution, we don’t want the police to get away with a traffic violation, but we want them to have the right to do their job. And here, what we see happen is that the police are not able to do their job.

Totenberg: Exactly. The police can’t solve crime without some suspicions. And for years, they have been acting without any probable cause. And often people, by the way, who are accused of crimes are pointing at other people, not the police. That’s perfectly legal.

Totenberg: They’re not always guilty.

WESTEND: On this point, I would add something to what the attorneys general are saying. We are so accustomed to this whole idea of self-incrimination. In fact, people get cited for these reasons every day in other states, every state that has a rule like this. But they are almost never convicted of it.

It is not a constitutional right, it does not mean that the person has to say that he is innocent, and the only thing the jury needs to determine, if they look into the eyes of the person they suspect is guilty of a crime, is whether or not the person accepts responsibility and acknowledges guilt. And in general, there is a lower burden of proof now. It was one element of the law before, to look into the eyes.

That is somewhat different than when the conviction happened that is overturned, and then you have to prove the person was guilty. So in that sense, it really has become more difficult for people, not only to testify, but to get the people they believe to actually admit guilt.

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