Privacy SOS

On “false statements” and FBI interrogations

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

The FBI says 19 year old Cambridge resident Robel Phillipos lied to them. If convicted of making false statements to federal agents, the young Mr. Phillipos would face a maximum sentence of 8 years in federal prison. 

Phillipos is reportedly a classmate and friend of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the 19 year old Cantabridgian suspected of having bombed the Boston Marathon on April 15. Two other UMass Dartmouth classmates and friends of Tsarnaev are also charged. The FBI says that these other young men helped cover up evidence that Tsarnaev was involved in the marathon attacks, after the fact.

But Robel isn’t being charged with playing any role in the bombing or the cover up. And his lawyers say he is innocent of the false statements charges federal prosecutors have levied against him.

The Guardian UK reports:

According to Phillipos's lawyers, Derege Demissie and Susan Church, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming caught up with the suspected bomber by chance. In a court motion, the lawyers say that at the time of the bombings he had been on a leave of absence from the university and had not had any contact with Tsarnaev or the two Kazakhs for more than two months.

"By sheer coincidence and bad luck, he was invited to attend a seminar on campus on April 18," the motion says.

Phillipos joined the two Kazakhs as they paid a visit to Tsarnaev's dorm room three days after the bombings. According to the federal complaint against him, Phillipos lied to FBI agents by initially denying he had been in the room, later changing his story.

Phillipos's lawyers point out that he was interrogated many times following his arrest with no lawyer present. "This case is about a frightened and confused 19-year-old who was subjected to intense questioning and interrogation, without the benefit of counsel, and in the context of one of the worst attacks against the nation.

"The weight of the federal government under such circumstances can have a devastatingly crushing effect on the ability of an adolescent to withstand the enormous pressure and respond rationally," the defence states.

Indeed, the weight of the federal government can come down heavily on anyone — not just scared 19 year olds who find themselves linked to people accused of atrocious violence. And that’s in part because the deck is not evenly stacked during FBI interrogations.

As renowned civil rights expert Harvey Silverglate explains in the video embedded above, the bureau has very specific marching orders during interrogations, orders and standard operating procedures that can put even totally innocent people in a "vice."

Those marching orders are spelled out in the bureau's internal guidelines, which explicitly bar agents from allowing an accurate recording of any FBI interrogation. If it’s your word against theirs, you can end up in a very tricky position. The agents are "experts" at inventing scenarios that "can make anyone look guilty," warns Silverglate.

The message from Robel’s prosecution and Silverglate’s advice is clear: do not talk to the FBI without your lawyer present. If Harvey’s decades long experience is any indication, chances are that the agents will politely decline to interview you if you and your attorney insist on creating an accurate record of an FBI interrogation.

Help spread the word: Share this blog, and print and circulate these Know Your Rights Flyers.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.