Today, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Salinas v. Texas. Surprisingly, the Court did not answer the primary question court watchers were expecting, which was whether a prosecutor can deride a person’s reliance upon the right against self-incrimination when that person has not been arrested. The Court said it did not have to reach that question because the person here, Salinas, never really properly invoked his constitutional right against self incrimination. And because he didn’t, there was nothing wrong with the prosecutor’s comments at his trial. This is a lousy ruling.
A bit more background. Everyone knows from TV shows, that once a person is arrested and the police start an interrogation, the Miranda warnings are given. “You have the right to remain silent, right to a lawyer if you cannot afford one and anything you say can be used against you in court, etc” The Supreme Court has also held, properly, that if anyone declines to take the witness stand during the trial, the prosecutor can’t attack that choice to the jury with comments like, “He could have taken the stand to tell us his side of the story, but he didn’t. That tells us quite a bit, doesn’t it?” The rationale against allowing that sort of “evidence” is that if one really has a right against self-incrimination, the government should not be permitted to attack it. The prosecutor must use other evidence to persuade the jury of guilt.
So, again, the government can’t offer negative comments on the choice not to testify and may not offer negative comments on a person’s choice to remain silent after an arrest. Salinas brought the question, what about silence before an arrest? Cato filed a brief saying prosecutors should also be barred from attacking pre-arrest silence.
Justice Alito announced today that the main question is again postponed for another day. The Court said Salinas simply remained silent and did not “formally” invoke any constititional right, so prosecutors could offer commentary to the jury. What’s most disturbing about the ruling is its discussion of “burdens.” The plurality put the onus on the individual, not the government. That is the profound error in the decision. As the dissenters noted, in the circumstances of the case, it was evident what Salinas was doing. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has complicated the law for persons who are the most vulnerable–persons who lack education, persons who do not speak English very well, persons who may suffer from mental problems, and persons who may be under the influence of alcohol. This is a bad day for the Bill of Rights.