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Supreme Court Undermines Miranda Rights in New Ruling

Many people are familiar with the Bill of Rights. They are the first 10 amendments of the United States Constitution and guarantee personal rights, freedoms and limitations on government intrusion and power. Some are spelled out, others have been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court throughout history.

The latest involves the 5th amendment and the “right to remain silent.”

New interpretation of Miranda

We’ve all heard of the common phrase: “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

This right is part of the list of “Miranda warnings” police give suspects in custody as part of their right against self-incrimination under the 5th amendment. (Pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court held that police may not use any incriminating statements made by a suspect who wasn’t first provided this warning.)

But what about a suspect’s right to remain silent. Could simple silence be used as evidence against him or her in a court of law?

According to a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court-yes.

History of the case

The decision stemmed from a case called Salinas v. Texas that came from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The basic facts are as follows: The police brought a suspect in for questioning about his activity as it pertained to an ongoing murder investigation. The suspect was not in custody and did not receive Miranda warnings. When asked a particular question about shotgun shell casings, the suspect refused to answer the question.

The man was later indicted for murder. During his subsequent trial, prosecutors used his silence and refusal to answer the question as evidence of his guilt. He was later convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He appealed his conviction and argued that the prosecutor’s use of his silence violated his right against self incrimination under the 5th amendment.

The Appellate court affirmed the conviction and, upon review, so did the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the man’s conviction, however each concurring justice seemingly had a different rationale.

Three justices agreed that, prior to an arrest, police may use a suspect’s failure to answer questions against him or her in a court of law if that suspect does not invoke the right. In the case at hand, the man didn’t invoke his right, he simply remained silent.

Justice Alito indicated that the privilege is “not self-executing” and any suspect who wishes to be protected must first assert the right and, standing mute, does not automatically trigger the right.

Alternately, Justice Thomas indicated that since the suspect was free to leave at any time during the questioning, his argument would be dismissed even if he had invoked the privilege.

Although all of the concurring justices seem to differ on their overall reasoning behind the decision, one fact is now certain-remaining silent could be potentially damaging in a future criminal proceeding against someone accused of a crime.

The dissent

Not all justices agreed with the decision. Justice Elena Kagan stated that giving the prosecutor the ability to “comment on a defendant’s constitutionality protected silence would put that defendant in an impossible predicament.”

Allowing prosecutors to use the silence against the suspect essentially gave him the choice “between incrimination through speed and incrimination through silence,” wrote dissenting Justice Breyer.

Implications of the decision

The decision is a game-changer for all criminal suspects who essentially cooperate with authorities. It definitely will have dire implications for future criminal proceedings. The decision proves that it’s important now than ever to seek legal advocacy as soon as possible.

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