U.S. v. Shannon is a recent federal case (Pennsylvania, 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals) which discusses post-arrest silence in a drug possession/distribution trial. This court decision serves as a warning to prosecutors about over-reaching when a defendant takes the witness stand. Post-arrest silence is a constitutional right, which applies even if the defendant takes the stand.
Why Federal Law Applies to Both State and Federal Criminal Cases
Why are Federal Constitutional Cases Important in State Criminal Cases?
Under the U.S. criminal justice system, both state and federal agencies have the ability to prosecute individuals for crimes like possession of drugs or drug dealing. While the actual criminal statutes are different in state and federal criminal cases, the underlying principles of constitutional law are the same. Federal constitutional protections/laws are like minimum requirements and must be followed in all federal and state criminal cases. State constitutional law may differ from federal law, but only insofar as state law provides greater protections.
Under constitutional law applicable in criminal cases, an individual arrested and charged with a crime has the right to remain silent. If you’ve been arrested and charged with a crime in this country, you don’t have to profess that you’re innocent. You can say and do nothing in your defense. That’s because the burden of proving guilt belongs solely to the government.
Therefore, it’s quite clear that at trial, a defendant’s post-arrest silence cannot be used to argue guilt. In other words, the prosecuting attorney cannot tell the jury that the defendant said nothing after being arrested, i.e., “You know he’s guilty because after he was arrested, he didn’t tell the police officers that he was innocent.”
What if the Defendant Testifies at Trial?
The constitutional protection applies even if the defendant takes the witness stand at trial. However, if the defendant testifies at trial that he is innocent and testifies that he had told police officers about his innocence when he was arrested, the prosecutor may then ask about his post-arrest silence.
In the Shannon case, the defendant was charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs and possession with intent to distribute drugs (cocaine). Shannon was a truck driver who was arrested after an extensive drug investigation by federal drug agents in western Pennsylvania. Inside his truck, officers found a large bag with over half a million dollars and several cell phones.
Shannon testified at trial and had explanations for having multiple cell phones. He also testified that he did not know about the bag of cash and instead had only tried to help a stranger. On cross-examination, the assistant U.S. attorney questioned him about why he didn’t tell officers his version of events or otherwise say anything before the trial. The prosecutor asked the following questions:
- Did you ever direct anyone to come to the authorities and say, listen, you need to know about [a witness]?
- Did you ever direct anyone to bring that information to law enforcement?
- You waited until you took the stand and then you told us about [other witnesses] right?
The trial court allowed this line of questioning even though the defendant’s attorney objected based on the 5th Amendment. On appeal, the court agreed with the defendant and held that the government attorney had violated the defendant’s constitutional rights.
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