The 5-4 ruling comes in the case of Genovevo Salinas, who was convicted of a 1992 murder. During police questioning, and before he was arrested or read his Miranda rights, Salinas answered some questions but did not answer when asked if a shotgun he had access to would match up with the murder weapon.
Prosecutors in Texas used his silence on that question in convicting him of murder, saying it helped demonstrate his guilt. Salinas appealed, saying his Fifth Amendment rights to stay silent should have kept lawyers from using his silence against him in court. Texas courts disagreed, saying pre-Miranda silence is not protected by the Constitution.
The high court upheld that decision.
The Fifth Amendment protects Americans against forced self-incrimination, with the Supreme Court saying that prosecutors cannot comment on a defendant's refusal to testify at trial. The courts have expanded that right to answering questions in police custody, with police required to tell people under arrest they have a right to remain silent without it being used in court.
Prosecutors argued that since Salinas was answering some questions -- therefore not invoking his right to silence -- and since he wasn't under arrest and wasn't compelled to speak, his silence on the incriminating question doesn't get constitutional protection.
Salinas' "Fifth Amendment claim fails because he did not expressly invoke the privilege against self-incrimination in response to the officer's question," Justice Samuel Alito said. "It has long been settled that the privilege `generally is not self-executing' and that a witness who desires its protection `must claim it."'
The court decision was down its conservative/liberal split, with Alito's judgment joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented. "In my view the Fifth Amendment here prohibits the prosecution from commenting on the petitioner's silence in response to police questioning," Breyer said in the dissent.
Salinas was charged in 1993 with the previous year's shooting deaths of two men in Houston. Police found shotgun shells at the crime scene, and after going to the home where Salinas lived with his parents, obtained a shotgun kept inside the house by his father. Ballistic reports showed the shells matched the shotgun, but police declined to prosecute Salinas.
Police decided to charge him after one of his friends said that he had confessed, but Salinas evaded police for years. He was arrested him in 2007, but his first trial ended in a mistrial. It was during his second trial that prosecutors aggressively tried to use his silence about the shotgun in closing remarks to the jury.
Salinas was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The Texas Court of Appeals and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction, with the latter court saying "pre-arrest, pre-Miranda silence is not protected by the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and that prosecutors may comment on such silence regardless of whether a defendant testifies."
The case is Salinas v. Texas, 12-246.
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