You have the right to remain silent—but only when you claim it. This is what the U.S. Supreme Court said in a ruling that was decided on June 17, 2013. The Supreme Court made a decision in the case Salinas v. Texas that individuals being questioned in criminal cases are required to expressly invoke their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. And only in rare situations, will simply remaining silent trigger the protections of the Fifth Amendment. The bottom line is that if someone just remains silent, the police can threaten to use that silence as evidence of guilt in later criminal proceedings.
Here is how the Salinas v. Texas story unfolds. According to information from the Supreme Court opinion, two brothers were shot and killed in their Sugar Land home in 1992. The next day, certain clues led police to the home of Mr. Salinas, who had been a guest at the party where the killings occurred. Mr. Salinas turned over his shotgun for ballistics testing and agreed to go with them to the station for questioning. He answered the officers' questions and was cooperative. But, when he was asked if his shotgun would match the shells recovered at the crime scene, he remained silent. The officers went on to ask him other questions, which he answered. Years later, when he was tried for murder, prosecutors used his silence in that interview as evidence of his guilt. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Mr. Salinas appealed the case, arguing that he was not read his Miranda rights and that prosecutors' use of his silence violated his rights under the Fifth Amendment. Both the Texas Court of Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals denied his petition and upheld the trial court's decision. Next, the Supreme Court also denied his request to overturn the trial court's decision. The Supreme Court gave multiple reasons for its decision. It found, in accordance with the lower courts, that individuals must actually claim the Fifth Amendment at the time of questioning in order for their silence to not be used as evidence of guilt.
There are only two exceptions to this rule, as stated in the Supreme Court opinion. First, when a defendant is on trial, he or she does not need to take the stand in order to invoke his or her Fifth Amendment rights. Second, a person does not need to invoke his or her Fifth Amendment privileges in cases in which governmental coercion prevents him or her from voluntarily doing so.
According to the Supreme Court, the second exception does not apply to Mr. Salinas because he voluntarily accompanied the police to the station for questioning. Thus, he was not subject to such governmental "coercion" since he was free to leave at any time.
The circumstances surrounding our Fifth Amendment rights are very complex. It is crucial that individuals obtain legal representation before making any statements to law enforcement. If you are going to be questioned by police, or if you need help protecting your rights after such an interview has occurred, make sure you get immediate legal help. Our Sugar Land criminal defense lawyers at Stornello Law Firm, P.C. tirelessly work to ensure that our clients receive the highest level of protection possible. Contact us to learn about our services!