Can the Violation of a Witness’ Fifth Amendment Rights Give You a New Trial in Your Maryland Criminal Case?

There are lots of good reasons to retain an experienced Maryland drug crime attorney to handle your case. Your knowledgeable defense attorney will probably know the law better than you, and they will probably know the rules of court procedure better than you. A skilled attorney will also be able to spot circumstances in which your rights have been violated, and be able to use that violation to get your conviction overturned.Take, as an example, the case of S.A. S.A. was on trial for one count of attempted manufacture of meth and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. At the trial on those charges, the state sought to call to the witness stand R.S. R.S., who was the prosecution’s only non-law enforcement witness, was good friends with S.A. The state sought to elicit testimony from the friend that she had told an officer that S.A. lived in a particular trailer and made meth in that trailer.

As the prosecutor asked more and more questions about what R.S. saw in the trailer (regarding the manufacture of meth), the judge became concerned about R.S.’ right not to incriminate herself. The judge instructed the woman about her right to refuse to answer on Fifth Amendment grounds. Despite the objections lodged by S.A.’s lawyer, and also despite several expressions of hesitancy by R.S., the court allowed R.S. to give several pieces of testimony, even though she did not have legal representation in the courtroom at the time.

The court eventually found S.A. guilty.

At this point, the big potential flaw in the trial was the potential violation of R.S.’ Fifth Amendment rights. Does the fact that R.S.’ Fifth Amendment rights potentially were violated give S.A. any recourse to seek a new trial? The answer was yes.

The Fifth Amendment privilege applies not just to statements that flat-out incriminate you but also to “those that furnish ‘a link in the chain of evidence’ supporting” a conviction. When the judge initially told R.S. that the answer the prosecutor sought did not trigger the woman’s Fifth Amendment rights, the judge was using too narrow an analytical standard.

So how does it help you as a defendant if a witness other than yourself has her Fifth Amendment rights violated? Well, that’s because, in some situations, a witness’ improperly admitted testimony may have such a powerful effect on the outcome of a trial that the violation of that witness’ Fifth Amendment rights amounts to a violation of the defendant’s right to a fair trial under the Due Process Clause. In S.A.’s case, the appeals court concluded that it could not say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that R.S.’ improperly admitted testimony did not influence the jury’s decision. That meant that S.A. didn’t get a fair trial and was entitled to a new trial.

Your drug crime trial may carry with it the potential of very stiff penalties. Be prepared to protect your rights by getting an experienced attorney to handle your defense. Skilled Maryland drug crime attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been providing effective defense representation to the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

The Very High Importance of Proof of Legal Causation in a Maryland Criminal Case, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 9, 2018

Maryland Man Gets Judgment Vacated After Trial Court Improperly Denied DNA Testing Request, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 8, 2017


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