Stay Silent – Exercise Your 5th Amendment Rights!

A federal court conviction for possessing child pornography was recently upheld in a case that illustrates exercising one’s 5th Amendment rights is a wise thing to do (U.S. v. Chilaca No 17-10296).  Remaining silent is particularly advised if English is not your native language. In this instance, the defendant really helped the government (and hurt his case) by waiving his Miranda rights and providing his statement.

FBI agents went to Mr. Chilaca’s home after obtaining a search warrant. Before reading Chilaca his Miranda warnings, an agent asked for “basic biographical information, including cell phone number.” The cell number linked Chilaca to a Dropbox account containing child pornography.

It was only after the cell phone information had been obtained that the agent read Miranda to Chilaca.  The Miranda was read in Spanish due to Chilaca’s limited English.  However, the agent added in English “You can remain silent, but we want to ask you some questions about the search warrant.”  Chilaca agreed and signed a document in Spanish waiving his Miranda rights.

The district court suppressed the statement disclosing Chilaca’s cell phone number. The Court recognized his statement was “in response to a question asked before the Miranda warning was read.”

Game over? Case dismissed? No. The Court found the agents then properly advised Chilaca of his rights, and that he waived his rights and protections when he told the agent how he obtained, stored, and accessed the child pornography contained in a desktop computer, hard drives, and in the Dropbox account. The request in English to ask questions about the search warrant did not mislead him.

On appeal, Chilaca’s position was that his entire statement should be suppressed. The 9th Circuit unanimously disagreed. Once he was read Miranda, he had a choice.  Waive his rights or exercise his rights. The Court found that the agents’ actions were not coercive, though there were a number of social factors in Chilaca’s favor, such as his immigration status and language limitations. The agent’s action did not force Chilaca into an involuntary act of providing a statement against his will. The language barrier was not a defense.  Chilaca may not have fully understood, but proper procedure was followed.

When dealing with law enforcement or the government, it is always smart to request an interpreter if there is any language limitations.  However, whether English is a second language or not, one of the most valuable (and so often unused) rights is to remain silent and request legal counsel.  If you need legal help, contact Jan Olson at Ellis, Li & McKinstry.