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Court: Prisoners Can't Be Forced to Snitch

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

In a twist on the right to remain silent, a federal appeals court said prison guards could not compel an inmate to snitch.

Mark Burns sued New York prison officials for allegedly punishing him after he refused to tell them who hit him. He said the guards made him an offer he couldn't refuse: turn informant or solitary confinement.

You can't do that, explained the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Burns v. Martuscello. Prisoners, of all people, should have a right to keep to themselves.

Compelled Speech

Burns was serving a nearly 20-year sentence at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility when officers wanted to know how he got a black eye. He said a can fell on him in the commissary.

When Burns refused to say more, the guards sent him to "protective custody." He spent more than six months there.

He sued for civil rights violations, but a trial judge dismissed his case based on immunity. The Second Circuit, however, had something to say about his right not to speak.

"To force a person to speak, and compel participation, is a severe intrusion on the liberty and intellectual privacy of the individual," Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote for the court.

It is not the same right traditionally recognized in Miranda cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has limited that right, for example, when a suspect waives the right during an interrogation.

Freedom of Speech

Even so, legal observers said Burns marked an important step for inmate rights. Noam Biale, his attorney, applauded the Second Circuit.

"We are pleased that the court recognized the fundamental right of every person not to be conscripted into becoming an informant for the government, regardless of whether that person is incarcerated or at liberty," Biale told Courthouse News.

Christopher Dunn, associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the decision was "an important step towards protecting inmates from coercive practices."

On the other hand, he said the appeals court erred on immunity. The panel affirmed dismissal on those grounds.

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