US Supreme Court considers whether silence is proof of guilt

On April 17, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Salinas v. Texas a case dealing with whether the Fifth Amendment protects a person’s right not to say anything in response to police questioning prior to being arrested and read Miranda rights. Legal experts believe that the decision in this case could have a huge impact on how police officers question suspects.

Silence offered as proof of guilt

The question before the Court arose from a 1992 murder case. Police were investigating the shooting deaths of two brothers when they question the man they suspected of committing the crime at his home. Police asked the man’s father if they could examine his gun, and the father agreed. Police then asked the man to come to the station so they could take his fingerprints and eliminate him as a suspect. The man agreed, and spent several hours at the police station answering questions.

When police asked the man whether ballistics tests on his father’s gun would link him to the shootings, the man did not answer. Police reported that he looked at the floor and shuffled his feet, but did not respond. Police arrested the man for the murders 14 years later, and the prosecutor used the man’s silence as evidence of his guilt at trial. The man was convicted of murder charges by a jury and received a 20 year sentence.

Fifth Amendment protections

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states the “[n]o person… shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Authorities have long understood this to mean that no one need take the stand in his or her own defense in a criminal trial.

The Court has decided several cases that explain more fully how far this right extends. In Miranda v. Arizona, the Court ruled that police need to inform suspects of their right to remain silent in response to police questioning. Griffin v. California states that prosecutors may not comment on a suspect’s refusal to take the stand in his or her own defense during a trial. Doyle v. Ohio prohibits prosecutors from commenting on a suspect’s silence after arrest and hearing Miranda warnings.

The basis of the man’s appeal in Salinas is the claim that silence in response to police questioning prior to arrest and Miranda warnings is no different than silence after arrest or at trial; it is all preventing self-incrimination. The man argues that he was punished for exercising his right not to incriminate himself.

Courts have been divided on whether the Fifth Amendment protects people prior to arrest, and the Court’s decision in this case will settle the split among the courts. Some worry that if the Court rules in favor of the state, in the future police will coerce people into talking prior to arrest and Miranda warnings by saying that their silence will be used as proof of guilt at trial.

Talk to a lawyer

Police officers are trained in methods to get people to speak when it is not in their interest to do so. If you are questioned by police, seek the assistance of an experienced attorney who can help defend your rights.