A Defendant's Silence In Noncustodial Interview Can Be Used Against Him/Her

In Salinas v. Texas,  SCOTUS held in a 5-4 decision, that a defendant’s silence to a question during a noncustodial police interview can be used against that defendant at trial.   Here, Salinas,  had attended a party hosted by the victims (two brothers) the night before their murders.   Salinas voluntarily accompanied officers to the police station and answered their questions until he was asked whether shell casings at the murder scene would match his shotgun. Salinas did not answer.   Instead as stated in the opinion,  officers testified that “…petitioner looked down at the floor, bit his bottom lip, clenched his hands in his lap and began to tighten up…”  At trial, prosecutors argued that Salinas’ silence and actions suggested he was guilty.   Salinas argued that the prosecutor’s remarks violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. 

The Court based its decision on the nature of the interview, specifically that this was a noncustodial interview; as such, Salinas was free to leave at any time.  This is key to the majority as it places the interview outside the scope of Miranda.    The Court holds that the 5th amendment guarantees that one will be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.   Here, Salinas was not in custody, he was free to leave at anytime.  Therefore there is no argument that the state compelled any statements Salinas made.  Moreover, Salinas did not argue that his failure to assert his 5th amendment rights was involuntary.

Justice Breyer writing for the dissent wrote that 5th amendment prohibited the prosecution from commenting on Salinas’ silence regardless of the nature of the interview.    Breyer, citing to various cases, argues that the 5th applies because it prohibits the State from commenting on an individual silence where that silence amounts to an effort to avoid becoming a witness against himself.  The majority countered this argument fails here because Salinas was not in custody thus no Miranda warning was necessary.