“You have the right to remain silent.” Haha, just kidding. That’s just something you hear on TV… or read in the equally fictional “U.S. Constitution.” In reality, not speaking to the police is basically an admission of guilt. Just ask the Supreme Court!
Amidst a flurry of recent Supreme Court decisions, the June 17 ruling in the Salinas v. Texas case flies in the face of the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment guarantees “no person… shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” As a result, persons of interest in police investigations are afforded Miranda rights, or the right to say nothing. Yet in a 5-4 decision, the majority of justices felt that in refusing to speak, Salinas was in fact incriminating himself.
Before going further, it’s important to know the details of the case. Following a double homicide, Houston police asked Genovevo Salinas in for questioning. He cooperated for an hour, even agreeing to give the police his shotgun for them to investigate. When asked whether the shells would correspond with evidence found at the murder scene, Salinas did not respond. Instead, police reported that he “shuffled his feet, bit his lip, and started to tighten up.” This silence was used as evidence of his guilt in a subsequent trial, even though there was no video footage of this questioning to confirm his behavior.
Appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, Salinas contended that his lack of a response was his right, not an admission of guilt. However, the Supreme Court felt that his Constitutionally protected right to not self-incriminate was in itself an act of self-incrimination. In a decision led by Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled that since Salinas was speaking to the police voluntarily and did not explicitly say he was utilizing his right to remain silent, his subsequent actions were fair game.
That’s quite a technicality and not in the spirit of the Fifth Amendment. Although most people know they have the right to remain silent, I doubt many would realize they have to say in no uncertain terms that they are doing just that for it to count. As Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out in his dissenting opinion, “How can an individual who is not a lawyer know that these particular words are legally magic?”
Slate reporter Brandon L. Garrett poses another good question: “If Salinas had answered the question by exclaiming that he was innocent, could police have reported that he sounded desperate and like a liar?” Surely, prosecutors aren’t meant to mount a case based on “just pausing or fidgeting.”
Perhaps worse still is the fact that Salinas was called in to participate in an informal conversation with the police. As such, he was never read his Miranda rights, which would have made his silence acceptable. Legal experts expect that the Supreme Court’s ruling will motivate police to badger suspects with probing questions before formal interrogations since these moments are apparently admissible in court.
Previously, in 2010, the Supreme Court handed down two other rulings that similarly compromised the integrity of citizens’ Miranda rights.
This most recent development goes to show that – even if you are completely innocent and not under arrest – it is best to only speak to police with your lawyer present. If police begin to ask you questions, requesting a lawyer will require them to stop the inquiry until you have counsel.