The Supreme Court issued a controversial decision this week, ruling that a criminal suspect’s refusal to answer a question posed by a police officer before an arrest can be used against that suspect at trial, according to a report from the New York Times.
The decision, which will likely have sweeping consequences for criminal procedure rules, surprised many legal analysts, some of whom believe the decision unfairly limits the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
According to sources, the Fifth Amendment, which protects American citizens from testifying against themselves, has long been held to apply to arrests, as well as during trial.
The Supreme Court, however, had never previously decided “whether or under what circumstances pre-arrest silence” in response to police questioning can be given Fifth Amendment protection, according to sources.
This week, the Court gave at least a partial answer to this question when it upheld the conviction of Genovevo Salinas, a Texas resident who was convicted of murder two brothers, Juan and Hector Garza, in Houston in 1992.
Before filing criminal charges against the suspect, police questioned Salinas, who had been spotted by witness at a party at the Garzas’ apartment on the night of the murder.
Sources say Salinas answered questions posed by the police for nearly an hour, but refused to answer a question about shotgun shells found by the police that may have matched a shotgun found in the suspect’s home.
During the suspect’s trial, prosecutors made leading remarks about his refusal to answer the shotgun question. The lead prosecutor reportedly told the jury that an “innocent person” would say “I didn’t do that” or “I wasn’t there,” according to reports.
With the aid of such questioning, the jury eventually found Salinas guilty, and he was later sentenced to 20 years in prison, sources say.
And after a lengthy appeal process, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Salinas, saying that the suspect failed to “expressly invoke his right to remain silent,” which a majority of the justices believe is necessary to benefit from the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
In a dissent penned by Justice Stephen Breyer, however, four of the justices said letting a prosecutor “comment on a defendant’s constitutionally protected silence would put that defendant in an impossible predicament.”
This predicament, according to the dissenting judges, will force future criminal suspects to make the unappealing choice “between incrimination through speech and incrimination through silence.”