Pisciotti v. Stephens, 2006 WL 3077750 (Fla.App. 4 Dist. Nov 01, 2006)

keep-calm-and-plead-the-fifth-2I plead the Fifth!!! Ahh, those immortal words of American jurisprudence.  Well, if you thought your friends in the criminal defense bar were the only ones who got to have fun with this bit of legal jargon . . . think again.  In this case brother figures out sister may have stolen a few checks while mom was alive.  Brother filed an adversary proceeding to remove sister as PR of mom’s estate and then sued sister for theft.  Brother then gets an order from probate court requiring sister to answer deposition questions and file a final accounting . . . overruling sister’s refusals based on her Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination.  Wrong answer says the 4th DCA, which reversed the probate court’s order on both counts.  Here are a couple of key excerpts from the 4th DCA’s opinion:

Sister’s first argument on appeal is that the trial court’s order requiring her to answer deposition questions violates her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, particularly in light of her brother’s comments regarding criminal prosecution of her. We agree.

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Here, given the potentially incriminating nature of the evidence, coupled with brother’s professed intent to seek criminal prosecution, sister had reasonable grounds to fear that her deposition testimony could be used as a link in a chain of evidence against her in a later criminal proceeding.  .  .  .  Thus, in this case the trial court failed to recognize that there was a reasonable possibility of prosecution, and ultimately applied the wrong law.

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Second, sister argues that the trial court’s order requiring her to file final accountings also violates her Fifth Amendment privilege. Generally, the privilege does not apply to documents that are required under the law to be prepared by a PR to carry out a fiduciary duty. [In re Rasmussen, 335 So.2d 634, 636 (Fla. 1st DCA 1975)].

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Yet given the fundamental nature of the Fifth Amendment’s constitutional guarantees, we perceive grave difficulties in applying the privilege to the deposition questions but not to the related final accountings. To refuse to apply the privilege to the order for a final accounting document in this case would have the rather perverse effect of protecting sister from giving testimonial answers conceivably providing a link in the chain of evidence but then refusing the same protection by requiring her to file accountings yielding the same information. Because of the facts and circumstances of this case, we distinguish Rasmussen.