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US Supreme Court rules against foreigner's rights

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In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States decided this week that foreigners who have been arrested and are not told they have a right to contact their consulate for assistance may still have evidence gathered by police used against them. Under the Vienna Convention, all signatory states must allow foreigners arrested on their soil to contact their consulate. The United States is a signatory.

Under the ruling, if a foreign national is arrested in the U.S. and they are not informed of their right to contact their consulate for assistance, all statements and evidence gathered may still be used against them. The three liberal justices on the Supreme Court opposed the ruling.

Immediate analysis suggests that United States citizens may lose their rights when traveling in other countries.

The case hinges on the fact that local law enforcement agencies may violate an international treaty by not complying with its terms. Once such a violation has occurred, that violation may not be used in U.S. courts to invalidate evidence used to prosecute the detainee.

Most civil and humans rights organizations that have responded at this time are characterizing it as a dangerous precedent to set.

Chief Justice John Roberts, one of President George W. Bush's two new conservative appointments, stated that a failure to tell defendants of their treaty rights was unlikely to produce frequent unreliable confessions or to give the police any practical advantage in obtaining incriminating evidence. The position of the conservative majority is that the rights of foreign nationals are effectively protected by other existing constitutional and legal requirements, including the right to a lawyer.

The dissenting opinion points out that the treaty, ratified by the United States in 1969, was an effort to spread civil rights that Americans take for granted to other countries of the world. Generally, the opinion notes that civil rights of Americans have been eroded by strongly conservative legislative actions and court decisions in recent years. This decision is viewed as an extension of that effort that will potentially weaken civil rights for all people around the world in all countries.

The decision was based upon two cases. In one case, a Mexican national was advised that he had a right to remain silent and that he had a right to a lawyer, in both English and in Spanish. However, he was told that he did not have a right to contact his consulate for assistance. Subsequent statements he made while in custody were used against him at trial. By this case, he was attempting to get the evidence used withdrawn from the decision in his original trial and generate a new trial without it.

The second case was a Honduran man who was not informed that he had a right to contact his consulate for assistance.

Both instances are acknowledged to be clear treaty violations, and the Supreme Court ruling broadly sets a precedent that an international treaty violation by local police (in the U.S.) is not grounds to disqualify evidence subsequently gathered. Such a treaty violation may not be used as grounds for an appeal.

It is likely that, in the future, other countries in the world will consider the precedent when interpreting treaties they are signatories to.


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