The United States Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case that could affect one of the most well-known rights in American criminal law: the right to remain silent.
Established in 1966 by the landmark Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, "Miranda rights" refer to a criminal suspect's right to remain silent while in police custody. Law enforcement officers are required to inform criminal suspects of their Miranda rights at the time of arrest and warn them that anything they say may be used against them in court.
In some cases, however, an individual's refusal to speak to police officers has been used as evidence against him or her in court. It is this issue that the Supreme Court has been asked to rule on in the recent case, Salinas v. Texas.
The case stems from the questioning and subsequent arrest of a man named Genovevo Salinas in connection to a pair of homicides in 1993. Prior to placing him under arrest, officers questioned Salinas at police headquarters for nearly an hour about the killings.
According to court documents, Salinas was generally cooperative with investigators and answered numerous questions about his relationship with the victims and his activities around the time of the crime. But when the police asked him whether a shotgun found at his home would match shell casings recovered from the scene of the crime, Salinas refused to answer.
At trial, prosecutors emphasized his refusal to answer this question, framing it as evidence of his guilt and arguing that an innocent person would have responded to the question by denying any involvement in the crime. Salinas was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the killings.
A central issue on appeal in the case is the fact that Salinas was not yet under arrest at the time of the questioning. In previous cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a defendant's refusal to speak to police while in custody, or to testify in his or her own defense at trial, may not be presented by prosecutors as evidence of guilt. However, because Salinas was not in police custody when he refused to answer the officer's question, it remains unclear whether the right to remain silent was in effect.
Miranda rights have their origin in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against self-incrimination by preventing criminal suspects from being forced to testify against themselves. The attorney representing Salinas before the Supreme Court argued that, by presenting his silence as evidence of guilt, prosecutors violated the defendant's Fifth Amendment rights.
In a brief submitted to the Court, Salinas' attorney wrote that using his silence in this manner left Salinas with no way to avoid incriminating himself: "If he speaks, his words can be used against him. And if he refuses to speak, the prosecution can argue that his silence is evidence of guilt."
When an individual is arrested or questioned by police about a potential criminal investigation, the stakes can be extremely high. Because one wrong step can have potentially life-altering consequences, it is important not to leave anything to chance in these situations. If you or a loved one is questioned by police or placed under arrest, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer right away - before speaking to anyone. A knowledgeable attorney will work hard to protect your legal rights and will fight on your behalf for a favorable resolution.