Is the Fifth Amendment violated when a defendant’s compelled statements are used against him at a probable cause hearing but not at a criminal trial?
This case considers whether the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause is violated when a defendant’s compelled statements are used against him at a probable cause hearing but not at a criminal trial. As the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explain in their amicus brief, the answer is yes. The Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment applies to preliminary hearings when such proceedings are held after the initiation of criminal charges. The Fifth Amendment guarantees that “no person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The preliminary hearing is part of a “criminal case.” Moreover, prosecutorial use of a defendant’s involuntary, self-incriminating statement at the preliminary hearing compels the defendant to be a “witness against himself.” Limiting the Self-Incrimination Clause to a trial right would deny criminal defendants a critical constitutional protection where it is often most important. In contemporary American criminal practice, a preliminary hearing may provide a criminal defendant’s only “day in court.” As the Supreme Court has recognized, ours “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Allowing a felony charge to proceed to trial based on use of a defendant’s compelled statement could pressure a defendant to plead guilty even if the prosecutor lacks sufficient admissible evidence by which to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.