The Supreme Court has issued a ruling on a defendant’s right to remain silent that directly impacts how prosecutors may use that silence as evidence in trial. In Salinas v. Texas, the court ruled that if an individual is voluntarily speaking to the police in a pre-arrest situation, and refuses to answer a specific question, that silence may be used against them in court. If the individual does not claim their Fifth Amendment right to stay silent, they lose that right.
Justice Samuel Alito, supported by Justices Roberts and Kennedy, asserted that “a witness’s constitutional right to refuse to answer questions depends on his reasons for doing so, and courts need to know those reasons to evaluate the merits of a Fifth Amendment claim.” The Court rejected the notion that the silence should in itself be taken as a Fifth Amendment plea. Justice Clarence Thomas was joined by Justice Scalia in his contention that an individual’s silence could be used against him in trial even if he did claim a Fifth Amendment right.
In this case, plaintiff Genovevo Salinas went voluntarily to the police to answer some questions about a crime; because he was not in custody and could leave of his own volition, the police did not read him his “Miranda warnings” which include the right to remain silent. During the course of questioning, he refused to answer specific questions about the facts in the case, and prosecutors subsequently used this nervous silence to convince jurors that he was guilty of the crime. His lawyer argued that he did not have to claim his right to remain silent because at the time of the questioning he was not yet in custody and had been issued no warning.
The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Steven Breyer, who was joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Kagan, and stated that courts should have to examine all the specific circumstances of an individual’s encounter with the police to determine whether that individual’s silence was an attempt to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights.