It is a refrain that is familiar to anyone who has been read their Miranda Rights or has watched a certain number of crime dramas: “you have the right to remain silent, and anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.” While this right to remain silent has been a cornerstone of the rights of those accused of crimes in the United States for decades, recent court challenges have added extra folds to the way remaining silent may or may not be used against the accused in court. Indeed, this right to remain silent may not be as lock-tight as it might otherwise appear.
What case led to this debate?
Though this right to remain silent might be assumed by many to last throughout an entire police investigation, this was clarified by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling based on a case raised against Genovevo Salinas for a homicide that occurred in 1992. Essentially, police began questioning Mr. Salinas prior to reading him his Miranda Rights (which include the right to remain silent) and Mr. Salinas provided answers. However, the defendant also did not answer a question that had to do with a weapon of his that was believed to be connected with this homicide. Prosecutors attempted to use this non-answer by Salinas against him in court, believing it reinforced his guilt. Courts in Texas, where the case was held, agreed that pre-Miranda silence is eligible to be used in a court of law.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
When this case came before the Supreme Court, the assembled justices ruled 5-4 in favor of the prosecution’s argument that a suspect’s silence prior to their being read their Miranda Rights is admissible in a court of law. The argument of these prosecutors – which the Supreme Court validated – was that because this suspect answered some questions and not others, he implicitly waived his right to remain silent and thus his silence could be used by prosecutors. Justice Alito referred to the right to remain silent as “not self-executiing;” that is, a suspect must explicitly claim it if they wish for their right to remain silent to be respected.
Though this case was contentious enough to split the Supreme Court along ideological lines and muster only a 5-4 decision, it does send a strong message about the validity of the right to remain silent and when it may or may not be considered to be in effect. Essentially, a suspect’s right to remain silent is certainly in effect after the Miranda Rights have been read. However, if these rights have not been read, then the right to remain silent is not implied and a suspect answering police questions may be considered to have implicitly waived the right to remain silent. As far as practical considerations, it means that suspects and defendants must be particularly vigilant about their rights as subjects under investigation and note that silence may sometimes be admissible.