Supreme Court Watch: Salinas v. Texas Examines Right to Remain Silent

Posted: March 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
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The right to remain silent when being questioned by the police is an essential element of liberty. If government agents are allowed to use silence in the face of accusatory questions as a sign of guilt, then the burden of proof will have been shifted to the suspect to prove his innocence, hearkening back to the days of the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism.

This essential right to not incriminate oneself is at the heart of Salinas v. Texas, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Rutherford Institute has asked the Court to affirm the right of criminal suspects to remain silent during interactions with police by prohibiting prosecutors from using a suspect’s pre-arrest silence as proof of his guilt during a criminal trial.

The facts of the case are as follows:

In 1992, Juan and Hector Garza were found murdered in their apartment. Genovevo Salinas, an acquaintance of the men who had been at a party with them the evening before they were found dead, was suspected by police as being responsible for the murders. The police approached Salinas at his home and asked him to accompany them to the police station so they could question him and clear his name. Salinas was never handcuffed and was not given Miranda warnings. At the police station, Salinas was taken to an interview room where, during the course of the interview, police questioning became more accusatory, and Salinas was asked whether his father’s shotgun “would match the shells recovered at the scene of the murder.” Salinas remained silent and did not answer the question. The interview proceeded.  At the conclusion of the interview, police arrested Salinas for outstanding traffic fines.  The district attorney later charged Salinas with the murders, but police were unable to arrest Salinas on the murder charge until 2007. After the first trial resulted in a hung jury, Salinas was re-tried. During the second trial, the prosecutor suggested that Salinas’ silence during the police interview prior to his arrest was a “very important piece of evidence” and that only a guilty person would have remained silent when questioned about his connection to a crime. The jury found Salinas guilty of murder and sentenced him to twenty years in prison.

In appealing the verdict to the Texas Court of Appeals, Salinas argued that the prosecution’s emphasis on his pre-arrest silence as evidence of his guilt was a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination. Two Texas appeals courts upheld the verdict, ruling that Salinas was not under government compulsion during the time of the police interview, thus he had no Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s ruling, The Rutherford Institute is asking the Court to affirm that under the Fifth Amendment, a person cannot be compelled to be a witness against himself, whether by being forced to testify, or by using his silence as evidence of his guilt. In keeping with the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that “[n]o person… shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” Institute attorneys are urging the Court to reverse the conviction of Genovevo Salinas, who was found guilty of homicide after prosecutors argued that Salinas’ silence during a police interview prior to his arrest was a “very important piece of evidence” and that only a guilty person would have remained silent when questioned about his connection to a crime. A jury found Salinas guilty of murder and he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

In their “friend of the court” brief, Institute attorneys argue that a person’s refusal to answer police questions, even before arrest and before Miranda warnings are given, does not indicate guilt in light of the well-known “right to remain silent.” — John W. Whitehead

Click here to read The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Salinas v. Texas

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