Tuesday, June 22, 2004

What Has Happened to the Fifth Amendment?

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision yesterday in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court has created the usual uproar in the civil liberties hen-house. There is much clucking and flapping about the decision, especially its implications for the Fifth Amendment. First some background: Larry D. Hiibel is a Nevada rancher who was stopped by a deputy sheriff who (as reported in the New York Times)
had responded to a telephone report of a man hitting a woman in the cab of a truck parked along a rural road. Arriving to investigate a possible domestic assault, the deputy found a man who turned out to be Mr. Hiibel standing outside the truck, with a young woman sitting inside the cab. She turned out to be his daughter.

Eleven times, the deputy asked Mr. Hiibel for identification, and 11 times, he refused to provide it....

Eventually, Mr. Hiibel was arrested and charged with the misdemeanor of refusing to identify himself. He was convicted and fined $250. The Nevada Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
As the Times notes, "Twenty states...have such laws on their books, as do a number of cities and towns." The clincher that has civil libertarians all a-twitter is the effect of the Court's ruling (from the Times, again):
People who have given the police some reason to suspect that they may be involved in a crime can be required to identify themselves unless their very name would be incriminating....
How did we ever get to such a convoluted reading of the Fifth Amendment? It says, in relevant part, "nor shall any person...be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself..."

In other words, if you're suspected of a crime, the police can't question you about the crime if you aren't willing to be questioned. And if you're charged with a crime, the prosecution can't compel you to sit in the witness box as a prosecution witness. That seems straightforward enough.

Suppose, however, that by giving your name to a law-enforcement officer you identify yourself as a wanted criminal or suspect in a crime. That is not the same thing as being compelled "to be a witness against" yourself. But some Supreme Court justices (notably Mr. Stevens) and many civil libertarians treat it as if it were the same thing.

Hiibel's champions didn't suddenly arrive at such a perverted interpretation of the Fifth Amendment. No, they've merely taken what is, for them, the next logical step in a long progression of precedents that has subverted the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment.

What's worse is that the majority in Hiibel said, in effect, that Hiibel wasn't denied the protection of the Fifth Amendment because he wouldn't have incriminated himself by giving his name. The majority suggested, however, that it might rule otherwise in a case in which a person incriminates himself by giving his name.

What seems to have escaped the majority, the minority, and all the other cluckers and flappers in this case is that a person cannot incriminate himself by giving his name. A person is incriminated by his acts, not by his name. Being forced to state your name is by no stretch of the imagination the same thing as being compelled to answer questions about a crime or to give testimony against yourself in court.

Having said that, I confess that I sympathize completely with Hiibel's refusal to give his name to the deputy. That would have been my reaction in the same circumstances. Hiibel had done nothing wrong and he was not charged for any crime other than refusing to give his name.

But I'm fed up to my eyebrows with the way the Constitution has been tortured all out of recognition. The Fifth Amendment is merely the most recent part of the Constitution to have been stretched on the rack of jurisprudence.