17 June 2013

Law in Plain English: Salinas v. Texas

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Salinas v. Texas

The police asked Salinas to accompany them to the police station, where he went voluntarily (and he was not under arrest). They asked Salinas questions about a murder, all of which he answered. But when asked whether shell casings found at the scene matched a shotgun given to police by Salinas's father, he looked down and did not answer. Salinas was later arrested and charged with the murder. At trial, the prosecutor used Salinas's silence as evidence of his guilt. An innocent person, he said, would have protested. The jury convicted Salinas, and the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas affirmed. The question before the Court was whether or under what circumstances the Fifth Amendment’s Self-Incrimination Clause protects a defendant’s refusal to answer law enforcement questioning before he has been arrested or read his Miranda rights. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Salinas’s Fifth Amendment claim fails because he did not expressly invoke the privilege in response to the officer’s question. As a result, his silence can be used against him. The practical impact of this decision is unclear--the majority's reasoning was split between the failure to invoke (Alito, Roberts, Kennedy) and whether the Fifth Amendment should apply at all (Thomas, Scalia). Prosecutors may be able to use silence as evidence of guilt when a person under voluntary questioning (but not arrest), but the reasoning is not necessarily clear.
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