Supreme Court Case: Does a Suspect’s Silence Prove Guilt?

January 23rd, 2013

The 5th Amendment has long guaranteed the right of a criminal suspect to remain silent. As a legal principle, it has its roots in the Magna Carta, when Bad King John visited unimaginable atrocities upon his subjects. Policies that allow for self-incrimination invite procedural abuses. Some noteworthy examples in history include the Salem witch trials and any of the millions of instances in which torture has been used to force confessions from otherwise innocent people.

This legal standard has existed throughout US history. US citizens have a legally-recognized right to remain silent when accused of a crime. It’s been the law for over 200 years, and it works. However, a recent murder case, Salinas v. Texas, is shaking things up. Reuters is reporting that the Supreme Court will take up the case to decide whether or not the right to remain silent exists prior to the moment when a suspect is read the Miranda warning. Will the 5th Amendment be overturned by the Supreme Court, thus undoing hundreds of years worth of advancement in human rights?

Prosecutors Confuse Law Enforcement Procedure for Due Process

It’s true officers will often enter into voluntary conversations with suspects. At this point in a police investigation, Miranda warnings are often not read and are not legally required. Suspects are generally free to remain silent and request an end to a voluntary police encounter.

In Salinas’ case, he answered some of the officers’ questions and stopped responding as their questions began to touch on certain subjects relevant to the murder case. His failure to respond was suspicious, but can it be evidence? The answer, according to our legal tradition, should be no.

What Makes Salinas’ Case Tricky

Salinas is probably guilty of committing the murders of which he is accused. However, it appears that the prosecution is basing its case on fruit from a poison tree in that their contention that Salinas’ silence was deceptive is a crucial component of the evidence that led to a guilty verdict. Had the police officers considered the fact that such evidence can’t be used in court, they might have pursued additional leads for better proof. Since they did not, there is a chance that the Supreme Court may overturn the conviction.

However, it’s not easy for judges to overturn a murder conviction when the defendant seems guilty. This is always politically complex, as taxpayers will rightly view this as a miscarriage of justice. The police officers should have sought better evidence and ultimately are to blame when a perpetrator walks due to a lack of admissible proof.

Regardless, this case is extremely important, because the Supreme Court may accidentally (or purposefully) overturn crucial parts of the 5th Amendment by deciding in favor of the prosecution’s use of silence as evidence of guilt. The decision will likely be announced in June, so stay tuned. If this ruling stands, police everywhere may begin arresting people simply for refusing to answer questions.

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About the Author: Barry Donegan

Barry Donegan is a singer for the experimental mathcore band Look What I Did, a writer, a self-described "veteran lifer in the counterculture", a political activist/consultant, and a believer in the non-aggression principle.