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SCOTUS rules: No right to remain “sort-of silent”

Posted: June 18, 2013 at 5:00 pm   /   by

Silence can sometimes be admitted as evidence

The lesson here today is, if you waive you Miranda rights after having been advised of them, your subsequent silence can be used against you.

There are a number of stories in the media about this ruling, but the media being who and what it is; I always like to go straight to the horse’s mouth, so to speak.  You can find the complete SCOTUS opinion in Salinas v. Texas here.

To put things into a nutshell, in 1992, brothers Hector and Juan Garza were found dead in Hector’s apartment.  Police found spent shotgun shells at the scene, and a neighbor, who heard the gunshots, described a dark-colored Camaro as the getaway car.  In the course of the investigation, police discovered that one Genovevo Salinas had likely been at a party the night before the killings at the Garza’a apartment.  At Salinas’ home, the police discovered that his mother had a dark blue Camaro, and also found a shotgun.  Police asked Salinas to accompany them to the station for fingerprints and questioning, but did not place him under arrest (he went voluntarily).  According to the record of Salinas’ first trial, he had received Miranda warnings before answering questions, despite not being under arrest.  Salinas cooperated with questioning until police asked him if the shotgun shells recovered from the crime scene would be a ballistic match with the gun they had found at his parents’ home.  Salinas resumed answering questions, and wound up being arrested and held for outstanding traffic warrants.  While being held, the ballistic results came back, and the shells from the murder scene did indeed match the shotgun collected from Salinas’ parents’ home.  He was subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of the murder of the Garza brothers.  During his trial, the prosecution noted his silence when asked if the shells discovered at the murder scene would match his shotgun, and opined this was an implicit indication of his guilt.  It was this point upon which Salinas appealed his conviction, claiming his 5th amendment right prevented his silence from being used to implicate his guilt.

Some SCOTUS opinions are more readable than others (and I have something of a hobby of reading them from time to time.  Yeah, I’m tons of fun at parties!) and this one mostly reads like a crime novel, but here is what I found to be the most interesting paragraph:

“Salinas alternatively characterizes his lack of a verbal response to the officer’s question as either “silence” or a “refusal to answer.” But in the context of the question put to him and his physical queues attendant to his response, Salinas’ “silence” was in actuality his non-verbal response, perhaps acknowledging that the shotgun shells found at the scene would match his shotgun, because he that he had committed the murder, or perhaps realizing that the police had the capability of matching those shotgun shells to his shotgun.”

There are lots more details which I have not recounted here, but essentially what Alito is saying is this: Salinas was being questioned, either voluntarily or after having waived his Miranda warning, and his silence on this one question could be regarded as admissible evidence, his silence itself being his response.  Therefore when the prosecutor referred to his refusal to answer this one question, both during trial and closing arguments, it constituted valid evidence, properly admitted.

Interestingly, the SCOTUS opinion broke down the oft lauded or lamented conservative/liberal lines.  Guess which side voted to keep the murderer in prison/?

Greg Conterio

Gregory Conterio grew-up in the middle of the cornfields of central Illinois, spent 12 years living in the People’s Republic of Los Angeles, and another 15 in Miami, Florida, giving him a first-hand perspective on the rich variability of American culture.  Although formally educated in zoology, he saw opportunity in the then emerging Information technology field 25 years ago, and has remained there ever since, although he denies being an early pioneer in the now fashionable trend of pursuing useless college degrees.  Having an entrepreneurial background, Gregory has long been a staunch advocate of free markets and minimal government intrusion into our lives.  He currently runs a small IT consulting firm based in South Florida, where he resides with his wife of 25 years, his daughter, three Whippets, and an unknown but growing number of chickens, having discovered belatedly the rural lifestyle is not so bad after all.

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SCOTUS rules: No right to remain “sort-of silent”