In a closely divided decision announced today, the United States Supreme Court denied a Texas murderer's claim that his incriminating behavior during a voluntary interview with police should have been excluded from his trial. At issue in Salinas v. Texas was whether the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination required the suppression of a suspect's silence in response to a single question, having answered all other questions during a voluntary interview.
The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined this case to encourage a decision announcing that the Constitution does not require the suppression of a defendant's response of silence when asked an incriminating question during a voluntary interview with police. The Foundation's brief noted that, contrary to popular belief, there is no "right to remain silent" in the Constitution. The actual right is to not "be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." When a suspect such as Salinas chooses to talk to police, he has chosen "to be a witness." The entire interview, including selective silence, should be admissible as evidence.
In the Court's plurality opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, "But popular misconceptions notwithstanding, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that no one may be ‘compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself'; it does not establish an unqualified ‘right to remain silent.' A witness' constitutional right to refuse to answer questions depends on his reasons for doing so, and courts need to know those reasons to evaluate the merits of a Fifth Amendment claim."
The case involves the shotgun murders of two brothers in their Houston apartment. On December 18, 1992, police responded to a report of shots fired and found Juan and Hector Garza. Both died from multiple shotgun wounds using double-aught buckshot delivered at close range. Officers recovered six shotgun shells at the scene. Several weeks later, police learned that Genovevo Salinas had been partying with the Garza brothers at their apartment the night before the murders.
On January 28, 1993, an officer visited the Salinas home and met with Genovevo and his father. When asked if they had a shotgun, Salinas's father gave the officer his Winchester Defender Shotgun. The father appeared surprised when the officer found that it was loaded with shells of double-aught buckshot.
Salinas agreed to accompany the officer to the police station for an interview and to provide fingerprints. He was not handcuffed or arrested. At the station, Salinas answered numerous questions about his relationship with the Garza brothers. He admitted that he had visited their apartment the night before the killings. After nearly an hour of answering questions, when asked "if the shotgun would match the shells recovered at the scene of the murder," Salinas did not answer, looked at the floor, and appeared nervous. Salinas answered a few additional questions, saying that he was home at the time of the murders and that he had not gone to work the next day because he had been hung over.
Learning that Salinas had outstanding traffic warrants, police arrested him following the interview. The next day, the police learned that ballistics matched the shells from the murder scene with his father's shotgun. A search of the Salinas home uncovered double-aught buckshot ammunition. On January 30, after the District Attorney concluded that this was not sufficient evidence to prosecute, the hold on Salinas expired and he was released.
On February 1, John Cuellar, a friend of Salinas, told police that two days after the murders, Salinas admitted to him that he had killed the Garza brothers. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but in the three days since his release, Salinas had disappeared. Fourteen years later, in November 2007, he was found in police custody under a false name and date of birth.
The first trial of Salinas for the Garza murders resulted in an 11-1 hung jury. On retrial, over the defense's objection, the judge allowed introduction of Salinas's silence in response to the shotgun question during his interview with police. The jury found him guilty of the murder and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
Salinas appealed, arguing that the trial judge improperly admitted the evidence of his silence. The intermediate court of appeals rejected that claim, as did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in a ruling noting that there was a significant disagreement among the courts regarding this issue.
When the Supreme Court agreed to consider Salinas's appeal, the Foundation filed a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, arguing that expanding the Fifth Amendment to exclude this evidence would keep important information from juries and undermine the accuracy of verdicts.
"In today's decision, the Court narrowly rejected an attempt to further expand the already bloated restrictions on police questioning and its use as evidence. This evidence is clearly admissible under the Fifth Amendment as enacted and originally understood," said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. "The real Fifth Amendment right is the right not to be compelled and there was no compulsion in this case," he added.