Supreme Court: For right to remain silent, a suspect must speak
Just being silent is not enough. The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that a suspect's silence during informal police questioning can be used as evidence of guilt unless the right is invoked.
Prosecutors can use a suspect’s silence during informal police questioning as evidence of guilt at a subsequent trial, the US Supreme Court said on Monday.Skip to next paragraph
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In a case with important implications for individuals at the early stages of a police investigation, the high court said that a suspect must verbally invoke his or her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent to prevent police and prosecutors from using any resulting silence and incriminating body language as evidence of guilt during a jury trial.
“The Fifth Amendment guarantees that no one may be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself; it does not establish an unqualified right to remain silent,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.
The high court split 5 to 4 on the issue, with the court’s five-member conservative wing rejecting a claim to the Fifth Amendment privilege in the case under scrutiny and the four-member liberal wing supporting such a claim.
The issue arose in the case of Genovevo Salinas, who was charged and convicted in the shooting death of two brothers in Texas in 1992.
During the initial stages of the police investigation, detectives conducted an informal interview with Mr. Salinas. He was not under arrest and police had not advised him of his right to remain silent or consult a lawyer.
Salinas readily answered all of the detectives’ questions – except one. After nearly an hour of questions and answers, one of the detectives asked him if the shotgun police had recovered from the Salinas house earlier that day would match the shells recovered at the scene of the murder.
Salinas fell silent. He did not respond. One of the officers would later testify that Salinas “looked down at the floor, shuffled his feet, bit his bottom lip, clinched his hands in his lap, began to tighten up.”
The detective asked some additional questions that Salinas answered. The only question Salinas declined to answer related to whether the shells found at the murder scene would match Salinas’ shotgun.
At his trial, the prosecutor presented testimony from the investigator about how Salinas had answered many questions by the police – but refused to answer one. The prosecutor told the jury in his closing that Salinas’ silence was evidence of the defendant’s guilt.