Silence as guilt and the silent death of the Fifth Amendment

Consider the following scenario: you’re walking down the street to your favorite microbrewery when a police officer stops you. “Excuse me”, she says. “Do you live around here?” “Yes, yes I do.” “Have you heard seen any strange people hanging around here?” she follows up. “No, not really.” Maybe you have your hands in your pocket; maybe you’re wearing a hoodie; maybe you’re a minority. “Did you break into that apartment there and steal a TV?” she asks, accusingly.

Now, maybe you’re a smart person, or maybe you’ve read this blog or many like it, or maybe you’ve had a brush or two with the justice system before and something somewhere in the recesses of your brain says to you “Don’t answer that! You don’t have to say anything! Walk away!”.

It’s been drilled into you: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you”. It’s a phrase that’s spawned an empire and will keep Dick Wolf’s family from having to work for about two centuries.

So you remain silent. You walk away. She doesn’t like that. She arrests you. You go to trial because you’re innocent. And then the prosecutor asks the officer about that incident. She says you went silent all of a sudden when asked the incriminating question. Maybe she says you shifted your feet, or averted your gaze. Then the prosecutor argues to the jury – the 6 people that will decide whether you keep your liberty or lose it – that only guilty people avoid answering incriminating questions.

If you have nothing to hide, you won’t hide anything.

It’s pretty clear that post-arrest silence cannot be commented on – because really, why even have the right if you’re going to allow that, but yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that [PDF] pre-arrest silence can be equated to guilt.

That means, if you’re questioned by a police officer, before being arrested, and you refuse to answer a question, that silence is proof that you’re guilty.

Because, see, it’s not that you don’t have a right to be silent – we don’t know that for sure – but you have to explicitly invoke that right. Meaning you have to say it out loud.

“Sorry officer, but I refuse to answer your question.”

You know what I call that? A technicality. A technicality that has now erased a whole lot more of what was written into the Fifth Amendment for your protection.

So why this line? Isn’t the “Miranda” warning prophylactic, as we were just told? Isn’t that merely an “advisement” of an already existing right?

So do I have the privilege against self-incrimination or not? Does it matter if I’m arrested or not? Should it? I’m either incriminating myself or I’m not. Does my custodial status matter?

Orin Kerr, writing at Volokh, asks two questions:

Finally, I have two major questions about how Salinas is supposed to work in practice. The first question is obvious: How clear an invocation of the Fifth Amendment right does it need to be?

Second, and perhaps more interestingly, it’s unclear to me what is supposed to happen when a suspect outside of custody clearly asserts his Fifth Amendment privilege.

You really should read his entire post – and this one by fellow blawger bmaz, and this one at Cato and this one by Bobby G. F. – but I can answer that second one easily: what’s supposed to happen is that law enforcement respects the existence and invocation of those rights and stops questioning.

But that’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen is that they’re not going to advise anyone of these rights. They’re going to “manufacture” scenarios so as to elicit silences and then use those silences to form the basis for probable cause to arrest people. Can’t you just imagine that officer who says that “based on his training and experience”, “innocent people don’t make furtive gestures” and since you did and then “stared silently, with a guilty expression, at the floor”, there is probable cause to believe that you are, in fact, guilty?

I don’t trust them to not abuse this to arrest individuals they don’t have much else on, in an effort to get them into a custodial setting in a police department to further “question” them.

If silence is guilt, then is that enough for probable cause?

When a silence is as good as an admission, does it really matter how you question someone or what you ask them?

The State has already argued that it should have the authority to detain – and that’s a legal term meaning you’re not free to go – anyone on the street for no reason whatsoever. Now they can ask you questions and if you silently walk away, they get to claim you’re guilty because of that?

Do you feel the grip tightening? Do you feel trapped yet?

Perhaps it is easy for you to say – as it is for the august Justices of the Supreme Court – that only a guilty person would refuse to answer incriminating questions or speak up about their rights. But have you ever witnessed an “interrogation”? There’s a reason why false confessions is a growing area of social science study. And what of those with limited mental abilities, or language barriers?

The Constitution is not dependent upon your level of confidence or your proficiency in English. It exists, as it always has, as a document that has executed. It’s rights have been conferred and now we’re giving the exercise of those rights back to the control of the constabulary.

When those with power decide who gets what protection, eventually, no one gets any.

This is what blind deference to establishment in the name of safety has wrought.

But don’t keep silent about it; I might think you’re guilty.


11 thoughts on “Silence as guilt and the silent death of the Fifth Amendment

  1. George

    So, as a layman, is it best for me to give nothing but “name, rank, and serial number” when approached by a police officer? Should I say something like, “My name is George, and due to the Supreme Court ruling in Salinas v. Texas I have nothing further to say.”?
    I’m confused by this ruling.

    1. Gideon Post author

      I think it is best to go like this, although perhaps the order doesn’t matter as much as conveying the message. Also try and record this interaction.

      1. Am I free to leave?
      – if yes, then walk away.
      – if no, then go to 2.

      2. I am exercising my constitutional right to remain silent. I refuse to answer any questions until I talk to a lawyer first.

      3. I am exercising my constitutional right to counsel. I want a lawyer. I will not say a word further.

      4. Do not say a word further.

    2. Joe

      Gideon’s response is Golden, but if you want to understand more about the stakes behind the 5th Amendment, and have about 40 minutes to kill, then sit down and watch this former trial lawyer turned law professor (and then a police officer!) tell you why you should never talk to the police.

  2. nidefatt

    I don’t even see how you get to Miranda in this scenario. If the government poses a question and the Court is willing to see everything as a response, including silence, then that silence has been compelled in direct contradiction with the Constitution. The “prophylactic” part was the “custodial interrogation can only be dissipated if warnings or given or we just assume all answers are involuntary.” But if you’re willing to twist every answer into guilt, then all answers are involuntary so long as they are a response. Only a person who walks up and literally volunteers information is not being compelled to respond.

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