SCOTUS ruling: Silence can be evidence as guilt

A 5-4 ruling upheld the murder conviction of a Texas man who bit his lip when an officer asked him about shotgun shells

By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Crime suspects need to speak up if they want to invoke their legal right to remain silent, the Supreme Court said Monday in a ruling that highlights the limited reach of the famous Miranda decision.

The 5-4 ruling upheld the murder conviction of a Texas man who bit his lip and sat silently when a police officer asked him about the shotgun shells that were found at the scene of a double slaying. They had been traced to the suspect's shotgun.

At his trial, prosecutors pointed to the defendant's silence as evidence of his guilt. In affirming the conviction of Genovevo Salinas, the court's majority admitted that some suspects might think they had a right to say nothing.

"Popular misconceptions notwithstanding," the Constitution "does not establish an unqualified 'right to remain silent,'" said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Rather, he said, the 5th Amendment says no one may be "compelled in any criminal case to be witness against himself." Since the Miranda decision in 1966, the court has said police must warn suspects of their rights when they are taken into custody.

But the Miranda decision covers only suspects who are held in custody and are not free to leave.

In the Texas case, Salinas was asked to come to the police station, and he agreed to do so. "All agree that the interview was noncustodial," Alito said, so the police were not required to read him his rights under the Miranda decision.

And although Salinas had a qualified right to remain silent under the 5th Amendment, a suspect must invoke his rights and say he wants to remain silent, the court ruled Monday.

Salinas "alone knew why he did not answer the officer's question, and it was therefore his burden to make a timely assertion of the privilege," Alito said.

The decision is consistent with the high court's grudging approach to the Miranda decision and related 5th Amendment questions over recent decades. The court's conservative-leaning justices have not been willing to overturn the Miranda precedent, but they have repeatedly narrowed its scope.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas voted with Alito to uphold the conviction in Salinas vs. Texas.

Alito noted that during a trial, defendants may refuse to testify, and prosecutors may not use their silence in court as evidence against them, citing the court's 1965 ruling in Griffin vs. California. In a concurring opinion, Thomas and Scalia said the Griffin case was mistaken and should be overruled.

Meanwhile, in another case, Thomas spoke for himself and four liberal justices to require a jury to find a defendant guilty of every facet of a crime that could lead to a mandatory prison term.

In Alleyne vs. United States, the court ruled that before a judge imposes an extra mandatory prison term on a defendant for conduct such as brandishing a firearm, a jury must find the defendant guilty of that offense. To do otherwise violates the defendant's basic right to a jury trial with his guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt, Thomas said.

Thomas has long maintained that juries, not judges, must decide whether a defendant is guilty of all the elements of a crime that warrant extra punishment. And in a rare show of unity with the court's more liberal members, he overruled earlier decisions that left this power in the hands of a judge.

In the case before the court, Allen Alleyne was given four years in prison for helping his girlfriend rob the manager of a convenience store. Following the prosecution's recommendation, the judge gave him an extra seven years for having brandished a firearm. But Alleyne said he had not brandished a gun, and the jury had not convicted him of that extra offense.

The 5-4 ruling overturns the extra seven-year term. The dissenters faulted the majority for overruling a precedent from 2002 that allowed judges to make such decisions.

Copyright 2013 the Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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