Supreme Court Allows Prosecutors to Use Silence as Evidence of Guilt – Salinas v. Texas

file000931283084.jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling recently that challenges many perceptions of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The court held that prosecutors did not violate a defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights by introducing evidence of his refusal to answer police officers’ questions in order to prove his guilt, when he was not under arrest and participated with police voluntarily. Salinas v. Texas, 570 U.S. ___, No. 12-246, slip op. (Jun. 17, 2013). A witness or defendant who wants the protection of the right against self-incrimination, according to the court, must affirmatively claim that right when the individual is not under arrest or in court.

The defendant, Genovevo Salinas, answered a police officer’s questions voluntarily during a murder investigation. The murders occurred in 1992, and the interview took place in 1993. He was not under arrest at the time, and no one had read the Miranda warnings to him. According to the majority opinion, written by Justice Alito, the defendant “balked” when asked if shell casings found at the crime scene would match his shotgun. Salinas, slip op. at 1. Rather than answering, according to police, he “shuffled his feet, bit his bottom lip,” and engaged in other behaviors the officers apparently found suspicious. Id. at 2. They arrested him, but did not have enough evidence to hold him for the murders until another witness claimed to have heard the defendant confess. He was arrested again in 2007 and charged with two counts of murder. Prosecutors introduced the account of his behavior in the 1993 interview, over his objections, as evidence of guilt, and a jury convicted him. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the verdict. Salinas v. Texas, 369 S.W.3d 176 (2012).

The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts’ rulings, drawing a distinction between self-incrimination that may come as the result of police coercion, which it says was the issue in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); a defendant’s inherent right to refuse to testify at their own trial, discussed in Turner v. United States, 396 U.S. 398, 433 (1970); and statements given voluntarily to police. The court cited prior cases holding that a witness must affirmatively claim the right against self-incrimination when police do not “compel” the witness to answer questions. Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420, 427 (1984). It also cited a case that held that a suspect in police custody, who had received Miranda warnings but had not expressly invoked his right to remain silent, was not protected by the right against self-incrimination. Berghuis v. Thompkins, 130 S.Ct. 2250 (2010).

Merely refusing to answer a question, when not under arrest, does not entitle a witness to the privilege against self-incrimination, according to the court. Justice Alito noted that the defendant was aware that he “was free to leave at any time during the interview.” Salinas, slip op. at 6. This decision places the burden on witnesses to assert the privilege against self-incrimination, and seems to be a step backwards from the principles established by Miranda, that police must inform suspects of their rights. Justice Alito rejected an argument that it would be “unfair to require a suspect unschooled in the particulars of legal doctrine to do anything more than remain silent.” Id. at 10.

The U.S. Constitution protects the rights of individuals in criminal investigations and prosecutions, and our criminal justice system has rules and procedures that police, prosecutors, and courts must follow. Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has worked as an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor, and he has spent more than twenty years fighting for the rights of west Texas defendants in criminal cases. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation regarding your legal matter.

More Blog Posts:

Miranda Warnings at the Forefront of the Criminal Investigation in Boston, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 24, 2013
Supreme Court to Decide Whether Miranda Rights Apply to Prisoners in Howes v. Fields, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 5, 2011
Miranda 45 Years Later, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 19, 2011
Photo credit: mconnors from morguefile.com.