You Have the Right to Remain Silent

Police in Mirror 300x191 You Have the Right to Remain Silent

In a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court has reaffirmed the individual’s  fundamental right to remain silent during a custodial interrogation following a traffic stop.  State of New Jersey v. Manaf Stas, A-14-11.  This ruling is especially important because neither the New Jersey statute nor the U.S. Constitution state the specific circumstances under which the right against self-incrimination applies.  It is largely left to the courts to determine when the right applies.  Under the Stas Court’s opinion, it is clear that in New Jersey the right to remain silent applies during traffic stops whether or not the police place the defendant under arrest.  This right against self-incrimination did not, however, prevent the Woodland Park Municipal Court, the New Jersey Law Division, and the New Jersey Appellate Division from using a defendant’s silence as substantive evidence of guilt and to impeach his credibility.

Around 3:00 a.m. on April 16, 2008, police arrived at the scene of a traffic accident.  Two men were standing outside a minivan which had apparently collided with a parked car.  It was impossible for the police officers to tell which of the two men had been driving.  The police first questioned Joseph Putz, who they believed had been drinking.  Putz answered their questions and told them he had been driving, while Manaf Stas stood at a distance on the other side of the street.  Stas said nothing to confirm or deny Putz’s account.  The police performed field sobriety tests on Putz, and arrested him for DUI.

Stas answered a police officer’s questions about his identity and about the minivan, but otherwise said nothing.  Because Putz had told them he was driving, the police did not perform sobriety tests on Stas.  However, after learning that Stas had borrowed the minivan from his sister, the police issued a summons to Stas for permitting an intoxicated person to operate a vehicle within his custody and control, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a).  They then allowed Stas to leave.

At a joint trial in Woodland Park Municipal Court, Putz testified that Stas had been driving the minivan, which contradicted what he told the police at the time of his arrest.  Explaining why he had admitted to driving the minivan when initially questioned, Putz told the court that “[the police officer] walked up to me and he assumed that I was driving and I kind of went with it. . . . I was pretty out of it.”  A-14-11, 8.  Stas, who had not made any prior statements about who was driving, confirmed Putz’s story.

The Court rejected this testimony, finding Putz guilty of DWI and Stas guilty of allowing an intoxicated person to drive a vehicle under his custody and control.   The Court “relied in part on the fact that [Stas] had stood by in silence” in its judgment. Id., 3. Both were sentenced to 180 days in jail, ten-year license and registration suspensions, and various other fines and monetary penalties.  The sentences were stayed pending appeal.

The Municipal Court judgment was appealed to the New Jersey Superior Court Law Division.  The Law Division conducted a new trial, but also construed Stas’s silence at the scene of the accident as “an admission,” confirming Putz’s story.  Id.,12.  Stas then appealed to the Superior Court Appellate Division.  The Appellate Division affirmed the Law Division’s conviction, finding that the reliance on Stas’s silence was improper but “harmless.”

Stas again appealed, this time to the New Jersey Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court saw things differently, using strong language to strike down the defendant’s conviction.  “We hold that the . . . use of defendant’s silence as substantive evidence of his guilt and for the purpose of assessing his credibility violated defendant’s federal constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, and his state statutory and common law privilege against self-incrimination.”  Id., 4.

The Stas Court explained that the right to remain silent is protected by the United States Constitution, New Jersey common law, and New Jersey statutory law.

The right against self-incrimination flows from the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and applies to any “person subjected to custodial interrogation after being stopped . . . regardless of the nature or severity of the offense of which he is suspected or for which he was arrested.”  Id. ,17 (internal citations omitted).

But if a defendant is not arrested and never receives Miranda warnings, the protections of the Fifth Amendment are not applied as strongly: “Federal jurisprudence distinguishes between a defendant’s silence prior to arrest, and his or her silence after arrest and the administration of Miranda warnings, and affords substantially greater protection in the latter setting.”  Id., 19.

In New Jersey, however, “the self-incrimination issue does not strictly turn on whether the silence preceded or followed the administration of Miranda warnings.”  Id., 20.  Rather, the issue is whether the silence occurs “at or near” the time of a defendant’s arrest.”  Id., 27.  If it does, it “cannot be used for any purpose at trial.”  Id.

This protection stems in part from the U.S. Constitution, but also from New Jersey law, which guarantees that “every natural person has a right to refuse to disclose in an action or to a police officer or other official any matter that will incriminate him . . .” 2A:84A-19.  The right is also established through numerous New Jersey court decisions.

The Stas Court also cited to In re Pillo, 11 N.J. 8, 15-16 (1952), to explain the importance of the right against self-incrimination: “In modern concept its wide acceptance and broad interpretation rest on the view that compelling a person to convict himself of crime is ‘contrary to the principles of a free government’ and ‘abhorrent to the instincts of an American,’ that while such a coercive practice may suit the purposes of despotic power, . . . it cannot abide the pure atmosphere of political liberty and personal freedom.”  A-14-11, 17.

The Stas Court further explained that “The privilege against self-incrimination protects individuals who are tried for DWI-related offenses in quasicriminal proceedings such as the municipal court trial at issue here.”  Id.  Stas was never formally placed under arrest, and he was never given Miranda warnings, but the Stas Court noted that “until [Stas] was questioned and issued a summons, he was not free to leave the scene.”  Id., 28.  This was the “functional equivalent of an arrest” for the purposes of the Court’s analysis.  Id.

The import of the Stas decision is clear: New Jersey law is even more protective of the right to remain silent than the U.S. Constitution alone.

Stas is not out of the woods yet.  The Supreme Court reversed his conviction but remanded the case for a new trial.  If Stas is re-tried, his silence may not be used against him.

See the court’s full opinion below:

If you have been arrested for a DUI/DWI or been in an automobile accident in New Jersey, you need experienced legal representation.  Stern Law will effectively defend your legal rights.  Contact Stern Law today for a confidential consultation at 856-685-7600.

About the Author: Brian Klitsch received his J.D. from George Washington University Law School and is currently a Legal Intern at Stern Law, LLC.

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