LegitSlater: Bungled Arson Case a Good Reminder to Know Then Assert Rights


Back on June 23rd I wrote a post highlighting the importance of first knowing, then asserting, your Constitutional rights. At the end of that post I stated I would do my part to raise awareness on this topic over the course of several columns (not consecutively), and recent events in North Dakota have provided the occasion for the next in this series.

The case I am referring to of course is the recent bungled arson investigation by the Dickinson Police Department into the fire at Trinity High School.  Charges against Thomas Sander, the former principal of this school, were thrown out by Southwest District Judge William Herauf earlier this month after he found statements the defendant made to police were improperly obtained and couldn’t be used at his trial.   

This can’t be defined as anything other than embarrassing for the Dickinson Police Department. It also puts Stark County voters into a bit of a conundrum this November when they will be forced to choose between their current Sheriff, Clarence Tuhy; and his challenger Terry Oestreich. Tuhy faced removal by Governor Dalrymple during this term, and many regard him as no longer being capable of addressing the increased law enforcement challenges in oil country. Oestreich was the lead investigator on the Trinity arson fire; and was thus very involved with the violation of Sander’s Constitutional rights.

It isn’t up to me or anyone else except a jury to say whether Sander “did it”, or didn’t. He was innocent until proven otherwise, and even though the case was dismissed without prejudice (charges may be brought again against Sander for the next 3 years), it is a pretty safe assumption at this point that Sander will most likely remain innocent regardless of his involvement.

What is clear is his rights were violated, and the judge did the right thing by protecting Sander’s rights regardless of his guilt or innocence in the matter. Our rights exist all the time and for all citizens (whether they are guilty of a crime or not). The Constitution is not a statement of what is given us by the government, but rather is an assertion of what is already rightfully ours by birthright, and what the government exists to protect on our behalf. That protection comes in many forms, and in Sander’s case it was in the form of a Judge who saw that his rights were violated by the police in their zeal to close a tragic case.

So what can we learn from this case? How about don’t talk to the police.

Sander was not properly advised of his rights. That is a key reason why the case was thrown out. This is basic Cop 101 stuff here, but Miranda is a warning, not rights of themselves. This warning reminds us not to do what Sander did… don’t talk to the police! Anything we say may be used against us, and the clock on this doesn’t necessarily start with that Miranda warning. All the Miranda warning does is let you know you are formally being detained. Without this warning, Sander would have been well within his rights to ask if he is being detained or was free to leave. If he was free to go, he could have walked out and saved a big headache. If he was being detained, the police would have had no choice but to advise him of his rights.

But if we didn’t do anything wrong we have nothing to worry about right? I am sure Sander (assuming he was innocent) thought the same, and Oestreich and other detectives may have even made it a point to tell him this.

A refusal to answer questions is not an admission of guilt. Conversely, any statements you make can be used against you — and may be taken out of context to do so. Any contradictions of statements you make, even if inadvertent, can be used to discredit other things you say which can help your case.

You may also be tricked into confessing to something, even if you truly didn’t do it. Sander’s confession was coerced with false evidence after being sweated for some time in interrogation (probably called an “interview” by the detectives).  Their job is to build a case to be prosecuted by the States Attorney, and they can lie to you to help build that case (granted, Oestreich and the others went too far, and the Judge defined what they did as coercion).

They are graded on how many cases they build which can be successfully prosecuted, and getting a confession simply adds to their chances of success. They honestly have no incentive, during this process, to be your friend or otherwise help you out — even if they say they are doing just that. They simply want you to provide them with what they need to build a case against you, whether you did it or not. Keeping your mouth shut and asking if you are being detained or are free to go will protect you from your own (possibly very scared and thus unclearly thinking) self, and establishes that the conversation is not a voluntary one.

So what if you are being detained? Asking for a lawyer is the only talking you should do at this point, regardless of what the police promise you or try to convince you of otherwise. At this point, he or she is your only friend. They are also the only protection you have, primarily from yourself and your own nerves at this point. Then, don’t say anything to the police without that lawyer present, and advising you on your answers. This advise works for the guilty, and even better for the innocent.

There are many lessons to learn from the Trinity arson. As I have written about before, while most law enforcement officials are above board, too many will forget their integrity when executing their jobs regardless of their motivation. Oestreich may have felt that Sander was guilty, and was stopping at nothing to bring him the justice he felt Sander deserved. He may also have wanted a big bust to pad his resume with during his campaign for Sheriff, or was simply trying to cover his assertion that Sander was guilty despite other evidence which needed to be fully checked. No matter what, Oestreich and the Dickinson Police Department did not do right by our system of rights of the individual.

We also learned the importance of keeping our mouths shut even (and especially) when we are innocent, and asking for a lawyer no matter how much our questioners insist it isn’t necessary.  Knowing, then asserting, those rights can only serve you well if you ever find yourself under the microscope, regardless of guilt or innocence.