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"Clark Rockefeller" Case Shows Tough Line Police Tread with Interrogations and the Right to Remain Silent

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on April 15, 2009 4:29 PM

The defense in the kidnapping case of a man who calls himself "Clark Rockefeller" (real name, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter) is claiming that portions of an interrogation video should not be shown to jurors in his trial. The reason given by the defense? Clark, or Gerhartsreiter, supposedly invoked his right to remain silent, which police proceeded to ignore. These kinds of situations likely provide good fodder for TV cop shows, but they do also pose serious legal issues, as can be seen by looking at the specific details of the Rockefeller case.

The AP summarized the circumstances of the interview, as follows:

"About 14 minutes into the interrogation, an FBI agent told [Gerhartsreiter] it's a crime to lie to a federal law enforcement agent.

'In that case, I better not say anything because I don't want to be accused of lying later,' he said.

After the FBI agent tells him she hopes he wouldn't lie to her, he says, 'I don't want to be accused of lying.'

The interview then ends and doesn't start up again for almost another hour, due to technical difficulties with the recording equipment, prosecutors said.

But when the interview resumes, Gerhartsreiter continues to answer questions."

When the defense in a criminal case believes that authorities have obtained evidence in a manner which violated the accused's constitutional rights, they can file a motion to suppress evidence. If successful, such a motion would keep the evidence at issue (in Gerhartsreiter's case, parts of the interrogation video) out of the jury's sight.

In this case, the right at issue was Gerhartsreiter's right to remain silent. If someone undergoing an interrogation in police custody exercises their right to remain silent, police should cease their questioning immediately or they risk having anything said by the accused thereafter be inadmissible in court. Now, what does "exercising" that right mean? This case is a good example of how difficult it can be to tell sometimes.

On one hand "I better not say anything because I don't want to be accused of lying later" isn't nearly the same as "I am exercising my right to remain silent." On the other hand, just how obvious do you need to be in order to exercise a right? Actually, in order for someone to exercise their right to remain silent, they must do so in an unambiguous and unequivocal fashion. Along this vein, prosecutors in Gerhartsreiter's case argue he did not make it clear he was unwilling to continue the interview. The judge in the case has not yet indicated when he would rule on the motion.

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