Most people have a basic understanding of the right to remain silent.
Essentially, if you are in custody, and an officer (or any person associated
with law enforcement) is asking you questions that could be harmful to
you, you have the right to refuse to say anything and the right to an
attorney. That right comes from the Fifth Amendment to the United States
Constitution which is also known as the right to remain silent.
Whether you are in custody or not, you always have the right not to talk
to a police officer. Simply put, if a police officer asks you, or anyone
else, about a crime, you have the right to simply refuse to answer those
As an example, if you are a witness to something you believe is a crime
and a police officer wants to talk to you about what you observed, the
Constitution of the United States allows you to refuse to talk to that
Of course, if you choose to speak to law-enforcement, you do so at your
own detriment, which is to say, if you lie, or say anything incriminating,
that information can be used against you. There are criminal consequences
for lying to a police officer. Many witnesses get themselves into trouble
by lying to a police officer when the simple answer would be to simply
refuse to say anything at all.
You also have a right to be free from questioning once formal criminal
charges have been filed against you. That right stems from your Sixth
Amendment right to have an attorney represent you. Restated, if you are
awaiting criminal charges, nobody associated with law enforcement can
ask you questions about that crime if you are represented by an attorney.
The logic behind the Sixth Amendment right is simply that you shouldn't
be asked questions about a crime unless your attorney thinks it is in
your best interest to do so. Defendants who are sitting in jail cannot
be trusted to make good decisions on their own behalf.
Many people who are in jail awaiting trial on criminal charges make the
mistake of talking about their crime with other inmates. People who are
in jail have an interest in learning about the crimes committed by other
inmates in order to use that information to help with their own criminal case.
Let's say for example, inmate by the name of Todd is in custody awaiting
charges for a robbery. One of the people in his cell, Webb, is in custody
for the murder of his own children.
Todd and Webb become friends, and one day Webb tells Todd, "I did
it, I killed my kids."
Todd now has information that he can use to help get a good plea-bargain
or a dismissal on his robbery charge. Todd simply goes to his attorney
and says, "my cellmate, Webb, confessed to me that he killed his
Todd's attorney will now contact the prosecutor and try to use this
information to help with his robbery charge.
There are no constitutional or legal protections which prohibit the prosecutor
from using the confession made by Webb to Todd. Because a confession is
a statement made against a person's interest and subjects the person
to criminal liability, it is an exception to the general prohibition against
the admission of hearsay.
The logic behind the exception allowing the admission of a statement against
one's own self interest lies in the idea that a person would confess
to a crime unless the statement were likely true.
In the federal system, or for people facing federal charges, it is very
common for people in custody to use information gained from other inmates
to help themselves. Most people charged with drug crimes ultimately plead
guilty to a drug related charge. The sentence received is usually very
harsh and involves a lengthy term of incarceration.
There is also a federal rule that is constantly used by United States attorneys
- and the federal system as a whole - to encourage defendants to plead
guilty. Rule 35(b)(1) of the Federal Rules Criminal Procedure provides:
Upon the government's motion made within one year of sentencing, the
court may reduce a sentence if the defendant, after sentencing, provided
substantial assistance in investigating or prosecuting another person.
What that means, in simple terms, is for federal inmates, cooperating gives
them another chance at having their sentence reduced.
Defendants enter into cooperation agreements, and in exchange for their
cooperation, the government offers to file a motion to have the court
review the Defendant's sentence, the type and quality of cooperation
provided, and then impose a new, lesser sentence.
Here is an example: Bill is federally indicated for conspiracy to distribute
methamphetamine. Bill knows several people who use meth, buy meth and
manufacture meth. Bill has no defense and is looking at a sentence in
federal prison of 16-20 years without parole (parole is abolished in the
federal system). Bill's attorney explains to him that if he agrees
to cooperate with the federal investigators, his sentence can be reduced.
Bill agrees and tells the FBI and anyone else who will listen, all of
the people involved in his drug ring. At the time of sentencing, Bill's
sentence may be reduced for the cooperation provided, but more likely,
he will receive a guideline sentence. Within one year of the date of the
sentencing hearing, the United States Attorney's Office can file a
motion asking the court to reduce Bill's sentence after considering
the cooperation and/or assistance Bill has provided.
The more information provided by Bill, the greater the reduction in his
sentence. If the information provided by Bill results in the arrest and/or
indictment of 10 other defendants who use or sell meth, Bill's sentence
may get reduced from 16 years to 10 years. If the information provided
by Bill results in arrest and/or indictment of 10 other defendants, and
Bill testifies at two hearings and one trial, Bill's sentence may
get reduced from 16 years to nine years.
In short, the more help and information Bill provides to the Feds, the
greater the reduction his sentence can and will be.
This provides a unique opportunity for inmates in the federal system to
help themselves by befriending other inmates and learning the facts associated
with another inmate's crime.
While Bill is sitting in prison awaiting trial or his plea hearing, he
can use all of the information he hears from other inmates to his advantage.
Similar to what can happen with state charges, defendants awaiting federal
charges can also benefit from being good listeners and using the things
they hear to their advantage.