What to Do When a Prosecution Witness Invokes the Fifth Amendment in Response to Your Cross-Examination Questions in a Maryland Criminal Trial

One of the most potent elements of your criminal defense can be the cross-examination of the witnesses who testify against you. That cross-examination may shed critical light onto the witness, revealing them to be something less than believable and trustworthy. When a witness tries to avoid answering your questions on cross-examination, it pays to have a skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney on your side, as that witness’s failure to answer may entitle you to have the witness’s entire testimony thrown out.

S.C. was on trial for his alleged actions during a dispute with the mother of his baby son. The woman, despite the presence of an order of protection she had against S.C., voluntarily chose to text him and ask him for money. She subsequently agreed to meet him and accompany him to a hotel room. While at the hotel room, the woman smoked marijuana and agreed to spend the night with S.C.

The next morning, the woman and S.C. allegedly became embroiled in an alleged physical altercation that was the basis for the charges the state brought against S.C.

S.C.’s attorney attempted to ask the woman, who was the state’s witness, about an application for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that she submitted. The attorney’s intention was the show that the woman had lied on the application, and then to use those lies to impeach the woman’s credibility as a witness.

However, lying on a TANF form may qualify as “public assistance fraud,” which is a crime in Maryland. As a result, the woman responded to each of the defense attorney’s questions about the application by invoking her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

The jury ultimately acquitted S.C. on the top counts but convicted him on the crime of second-degree assault and violation of an out-of-state protective order.

S.C. appealed, arguing that the trial court should have thrown out the woman’s testimony after she invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer the defense attorney’s questions. By allowing the woman to give potentially incriminating testimony while avoiding answering questions on cross-examination, the court denied S.C. his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers, he argued.

Establishing Whether or Not the Subject Matter Was ‘Collateral’

The law in Maryland does say that, in some situations, allowing a witness to testify against the accused while also allowing that witness to avoid answering the defense’s questions is a violation of the accused’s Sixth Amendment rights. To establish that a constitutional violation has occurred, you have to demonstrate is that the things about which the witness invoked the Fifth Amendment were “matters about which the witness testified on direct examination,” as opposed to things that were simply “collateral matters which bear only on the credibility of the witness.”

If, for example, S.C.’s alleged victim had invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to questions the defense attorney posed regarding the accuser’s use of illegal drugs on the day in question, then that might have yielded a very different outcome.

In S.C.’s case, though, the questions the accuser didn’t answer related to welfare paperwork she filled out. The “heart” of the woman’s trial testimony related to S.C.’s alleged attack on her, not whether or not she lied in a welfare application that she filled out on a different day in a different place. For that reason, the welfare application was a “collateral matter” that only impacted her general credibility as a witness, meaning S.C. did not meet the requirements for establishing a Sixth Amendment violation.

Every element of your criminal defense, from cross-examining witnesses to moving for suppression of evidence, requires in-depth knowledge of the law and the rules of procedure. You need someone in your corner ready to fight for you. Look to the experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at the office of Anthony Fatemi LLC to be the experienced and powerful advocate you need. Call us at (301) 519-2801 or submit our online contact form today.

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