The treatment of silence

Jam of the week: “Daydream in Blue” by I Monster

It’s a generally good idea to know what you can and cannot do. That seems like a simple statement, but is worth mentioning after a recent Supreme Court ruling.

I’ve been touching on Supreme Court cases lately. The Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act was quickly overshadowed by the news that the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Thankfully, everyone already has an established opinion on that, so I won’t elaborate on that case.

However, I became aware of another ruling the Court made on Monday that hasn’t been nearly as visible in the media. The Court ruled on the case of Salinas v. Texas, a case that requires some explanation and has far reaching implications.

Let’s turn back the clock to 1992. Grunge music was hitting the mainstream with Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album topping the charts, the Rodney King riots struck Los Angeles, and Genovevo Salinas voluntarily entered a Houston police station. Officers were investigating the death of two brothers at a home in Houston. There were no witnesses to the shooting deaths of the brothers. Several shotgun shell cartridges were found.

Salinas had attended a party at the home where the brothers were killed the night before their deaths. Officers invited him informally to the police station. They did not arrest him or read him his Miranda Rights, but they did talk with him for about an hour. Salinas agreed to give the officers his shotgun for testing.

The next interaction between Salinas and the officers is what eventually brought his case to the Supreme Court. After agreeing to give the officers his shotgun, the officers asked Salinas if the gun would match the shells from the scene of the crime. Sgt. C. E. Elliott would later say in Salinas’ trial that upon asking him if the gun and shells would match, that “He looked down at the floor, shuffled his feet, bit his bottom lip, clinched his hands in his lap, began to tighten up.”

Salinas was arrested after those expressions, even though he remained silent. Only after that question was he read his Miranda Rights, which include a little tip about the Fifth Amendment that protects individuals against self-incrimination. Salinas was eventually found guilty for the murder of the brothers, with his awkward pause used as evidence against him.

Salinas’ lawyer argued that his silence and behavior before he was arrested should not have been used against him, and the Supreme Court had previously ruled that prosecutors can’t use a defendant’s refusal to answer questions against themselves.

In a five-to-four ruling, the Supreme Court said Salinas’ Fifth Amendment defense is unacceptable because he didn’t declare that he had that right to remain silent during questioning.

Before we get to the implications of the ruling, it’s worth noting that courts have been divided on this question for some time. While 10 courts have ruled that the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent includes pre-arrest interviews, nine others had ruled it was only applicable after a person was read their Miranda Rights.

Not only does this ruling mean that pre-arrest silence can be used against individuals in court, it also gives law enforcement officials incentive to delay reading someone their Miranda Rights and to hold more informal interviews. It also punishes those who don’t know their rights well, or just happened to sleep through a constitutional law class.

I doubt anyone who reads this will have to recall this column during a police interview. I also continue to think highly of the Webster City Police Department and officers across the country. However, I do think this ruling is worth remembering since the law of the land now states that you have to declare your rights at any point before an arrest if you wish to use them, and since the media at large has not taken up the story, I figure a nice reminder is in order.