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You Have The Right To Remain Silent

| Jul 7, 2016 | Civil Rights |

It may not have been a big story in the news, but a recent Press Democrat article caught my eye: Satanic graffiti was found on a sign at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. I’ve had clients who were charged with graffiti, and this case has an obvious interesting twist with the whole ‘satanic’ element. Recently, though, it got even more interesting.

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A local man named Ryan Fortner was arrested, questioned, and jailed for committing this crime. But then the Santa Rosa police released him and arrested another man. There’s strong evidence that the second man, Kyle Eric Schaller, did the crime — he was known to have scrawled pentagrams and the like before, he had the pens, and he looks like the guy on the surveillance film.

Schaller is the defendant, but for me Ryan Fortner is the star of this story. Here’s why: The police say that he confessed.

He is, by the police’s account, an innocent man, wrongly charged. Yet, he allegedly said he did it. How did that happen? When questioned by the police, he must have thought “there’s no harm in just talking to the police, I’m innocent.” Then he got confused, or threatened, or otherwise coerced into giving a false confession, or there was some other reason that led to the false confession.

The police are under pressure to make an arrest in their cases, but that’s different than actually solving the case. When they arrest someone, they do it because they think he’s guilty and they’re on to the next case. In major cases — murder, rape — they work hard to make sure that if they go to trial, they’ve got enough evidence to convince a jury. But for minor crimes — like graffiti — they may not work all that hard if they’re sure they’ve got enough to convict you.

Whatever the circumstances in this case, the important thing is that — without a lawyer present — he talked to the police, was arrested, and confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. If he’d had a competent lawyer with him that probably wouldn’t have happened.

It’s hard to say how convincing Fortner’s false confession was, or how convincing it needed to be to satisfy the police. I’m not speculating on what occurred prior to the confession, but I do know a cop’s lying to obtain a confession does not make the confession involuntary as long as the police interrogation was not ‘coercive.’ (Sotelo v. Indiana State Prison, 850 F.2d 1244, 1251 (7th Cir.1988). According to Steve Irsay of Court TV, “only direct threats of violence and promises of leniency are clearly prohibited.”
The US Supreme Court allows interrogators to lie about witnesses, evidence, and more. That’s right: you can’t legally lie to them, but it’s not illegal for them to lie to you.

An old clichà says that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, if all you have are handcuffs, everyone looks like a perpetrator. The criminal justice system will look at you as guilty unless and until it has a reason to think you’re not. Don’t just assume that the criminal justice system is competent and fair — make sure that it is. Hire a sound, trustworthy lawyer to represent you and make the criminal justice system competent and fair.

If the police want to talk to you, talk to a competent lawyer first. You may know that you’re innocent and therefore think that you have nothing to fear. You’re wrong. Consider some facts:
• In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.
• The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years.
• The most common bases for exoneration were the real perpetrator was identified (74%) or that new scientific evidence was discovered (46%).

I have been helping my clients keep their footing against the criminal justice system 2003. If the police want to talk to you and you want experience on your side, give me a call.