Supreme Court Bombshell: No Right to Remain Silent

supreme-courtThe Supreme Court handed down a decision on June 17 that has been ignored by most media outlets, despite its devastating effect on one of the most fundamental rights protected by the Constitution.

In a 5-4 ruling, the justices ruled that a person no longer has the right to remain silent as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. In relevant part, the Fifth Amendment mandates that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Salinas v. Texas, that part of the Bill of Rights has been excised — and has joined the list of so many other fundamental liberties that now lie on the scrap heap of history.

Here’s a little background of the circumstances of the Salinas case, as told by Slate:

Two brothers were shot at home in Houston. There were no witnesses — only shotgun shell casings left at the scene. Genovevo Salinas had been at a party at that house the night before the shooting, and police invited him down to the station, where they talked for an hour. They did not arrest him or read him his Miranda warnings. Salinas agreed to give the police his shotgun for testing. Then the cops asked whether the gun would match the shells from the scene of the murder. According to the police, Salinas stopped talking, shuffled his feet, bit his lip, and started to tighten up.

At trial, Salinas did not testify, but prosecutors described his reportedly uncomfortable reaction to the question about his shotgun. Salinas argued this violated his Fifth Amendment rights: He had remained silent, and the Supreme Court had previously made clear that prosecutors can’t bring up a defendant’s refusal to answer the state’s questions. This time around, however, Justice Samuel Alito blithely responded that Salinas was “free to leave” and did not assert his right to remain silent. He was silent. But somehow, without a lawyer, and without being told his rights, he should have affirmatively “invoked” his right to not answer questions. Two other justices signed on to Alito’s opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia joined the judgment, but for a different reason; they think Salinas had no rights at all to invoke before his arrest (they also object to Miranda itself). The upshot is another terrible Roberts Court ruling on confessions. In 2010 the court held that a suspect did not sufficiently invoke the right to remain silent when he stubbornly refused to talk, after receiving his Miranda warnings, during two hours of questioning.

Consider the ripple effect of the Salinas decision. Specifically, imagine how this ruling will alter the entire landscape of rights — including Miranda — and how they are applied (or not applied) to those accused of serious crimes. Here’s one potential application singled out by the Atlantic:

You know what’s a much more recent wrinkle to the potential precedent effect of today’s ruling? A case like that of the younger Boston Marathon suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who reportedly sat through 16 hours of questioning before he was read his Miranda rights. Had Tsarnaev, who was recovering from serious injuries at the time, remained silent during questioning without explicitly invoking his Fifth Amendment, prosecutors could, under the Salinas ruling, now use that silence to their advantage.

Guilty or not, suspects in the United States no longer have the right to remain silent. If they remain silent, moreover, that silence will now be interpreted as guilt and will indeed — despite what you see on television court and cop dramas — be used against that person in a court of law. Even, in fact, the highest court in the land.

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