In a major loss for individual rights vis-a-vis the police, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that prosecutors could use a person’s silence against them in court if it comes before he’s told of his right to remain silent. The prosecutors used the silence of Genovevo Salinas to convict him of a 1992 murder. Because this was a non-custodial interview, the Court ruled that the prosecutors could use his silence even though citizens are allowed to refuse to speak with police. It is of little surprise that the pro-police powers decision was written by Samuel Alito who consistently rules in favor of expanding police powers.
The case began on the morning of December 18, 1992 when two brothers were shot and killed in their Houston home. A neighbor told police that someone fled in a dark-colored car. Police recovered six shotgun shell casings at the scene. Police inteviewed Salinas who was a guest at a party that the victims hosted the night before they were killed. He owned a dark blue car. While this was a noncustodial interview and Salinas answered questions by the police, he stopped answering when a police officer asked whether his shotgun “would match the shells recovered at the scene of the murder.” The record states that, rather than answering “petitioner ‘[l]ooked down at the floor, shuffled his feet, bit his bottom lip, cl[e]nched hishands in his lap, [and] began to tighten up.’” Notably, there was insufficient evidence to charge him with the crime. However, a statement later by another man (who said that Salinas admitted to the killings) led to the charge.
Salinas did not testify at trial, so prosecutors used his silence against him.
In 1976, in Doyle v. Ohio, the Court held that the prosecution may not comment on a suspect’s silence when he was under arrest and had been given Miranda warning. Here Salinas was using his right to remain silent that belongs to every citizen. However, because the police did not move to arrest him, the prosecutors are allowed to achieve the prejudicial impact addressed in Doyle.
The prosecutors also served to undermine the right not to take the stand. In Griffin v. California, the Court ruled that prosecutors could not comment on an individual’s decision not to take the stand and testify. Yet, here the prosecutors succeeded in magnifying the impact of this failure to testify by directing the attention of the jury to his decision to remain silent in the pre-custodial interview.
Of course, now the police need only to ask questions before putting some into custody to use their silence against them. What is particularly troublesome is how subjective this evidence is. To use the silence and demeanor of a suspect on this question is highly prejudicial and equally unreliable. Yet, now the refusal to answer questions (which is your right) can now be used against you. You can imagine how this new rule can be used any time someone wants to speak with a lawyer or a family member. Police can now recount how they did not assist them or volunteer information.
Citizens will now be able to have protected silence only after being placed in custody. Of course you had that right before that point, but silence would now be incriminating. That gives police every incentive to delay custody — an incentive that already exists due to other rules like Miranda.
In his dissent, Justice Breyer stressed the danger:
the need to categorize Salinas’ silence as based on the Fifth Amendment is supported here by the presence, in full force, of the predicament I discussed earlier, namely that of not forcing Salinas to choose between incrimination through speech and incrimination through silence. That need is also supported by the absence of any special reason that the police had to know, with certainty, whether Salinas was, in fact, relying on the Fifth Amendment—such as whether to doubt that there really was a risk of self-incrimination, see Hoffman v. United States, 341 U. S. 479, 486 (1951), or whether to grant immunity, see Kastigar, 406 U. S., at 448. Given these circumstances, Salinas’ silence was “sufficient to put the [government] on notice of an apparent claim of theprivilege.” Quinn, supra, at 164. That being so, for reasons similar to those given in Griffin, the Fifth Amendment bars the evidence of silence admitted against Salinas and mentioned by the prosecutor.
Unfortunately, my prediction that Alito would show an overwhelming bias in favor of police powers has been realized. This ruling will likely open up an entire area of new prosecutorial arguments using silence as evidence of guilt. It is a major blow to the rights of citizens — and a telling addition to the troubling judicial legacy of Alito.
Ironically, I was at CNN in case of a “major” ruling and was telling producers why the media has missed this “sleeper” case which will have sweeping impact on citizens in their relation to police. In my view, it was one of the most significant rulings of the term. (Of course, given the result, it was “significant” in a negative way — the way that the Hindenburg was a “significant” moment for airship travel).
Here is the decision: 12-246_1p24