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MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2005
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EDITORIAL

High-profile cases show value of taking the 'Fifth'

It would be difficult to find someone not aware of the Martha Stewart case, which caused her to be jailed in a federal prison.

The same thing could happen to former Franklin County Judge Ben Richey if he is found guilty in Birmingham federal court.

Both he and Ms. Stewart were not charged with what one would normally think of as a criminal offense. Both were charged with lying to a federal officer.

Mr. Richey has entered a not guilty plea to charges that he lied to a FBI agent during an investigation of former District Attorney John Pilati.

In a way, these cases are frightening. They seem to be more infringements on citizens' rights not to incriminate themselves than criminal offenses.

The law that gives the government the right to prosecute is a powerful one that could put any citizen in the same position as these two. It's somewhat like the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, better known as RICO, which was originally passed by Congress in 1970 to fight organized crime.

The intent of RICO has spread far from what one normally considers organized crime, namely the Mafia, for which it was intended.

Now, government agents rarely use RICO against the Mafia. Instead, it is used against individuals, businesses, political activists and terrorist organizations.

Considering the implications of RICO and those of the government thinking you are telling a lie during an investigation (even if you are), the consequences can be devastating.

Add to these laws and the far-reaching grasp of the Homeland Security Agency that has laws so secret no one knows about them, it's probable that constitutional rights are about to be crushed.

It's reaching the point that investigators should be charged with giving a Miranda-type warning before they begin an interview.

Perhaps it's also time for everyone to begin practicing how to plead the Fifth Amendment, because telling an investigator "I don't know," can be construed as a lie if you do know.

Who knows, this power might morph right on down to federal wildlife officers, such as those at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and Bankhead National Forest.

To be safe, if one asks who ran over a squirrel, be ready to invoke the Fifth or ask for an attorney. Otherwise, one might find themselves chatting with Martha.

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