When and How to Invoke Your Right to Silence

Want to remain silent when questioned by the cops? Now you might have to say so.

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You’ve seen it time after time on primetime television police shows—cops slapping the cuffs on a “perp” and reading him his rights: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” And so on. Believe it or not, this ubiquitous arrest scene presents a rare instance in which Hollywood stays true (for the most part) to the laws of criminal procedure. Indeed, the (in)famous case of Miranda v. Arizona requires that law enforcement officers advise arrested suspects of certain rights, including the option of saying nothing. ((1966) 384 U.S. 436.) Miranda, which derived from the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, also triggered the practice of officers telling arrestees that:

  • what they say can be used against them in court
  • they have the right to consult with a lawyer
  • a lawyer can be present during questioning
  • a lawyer will represent them free of cost if they can’t afford but want one, and
  • if they decide to answer police questions, they can stop the interview at any time.

When Must the Police Advise You of Your Rights?

Officers must provide Miranda warnings whenever they interrogate someone who is in custody. “Interrogation” includes not only express questioning, but also any words or actions that police officers should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. Being “in custody” describes a situation in which a reasonable person in the suspect’s shoes would not feel free to leave.

The corollary of Miranda warnings is that the prosecution cannot use a suspect’s silence as evidence of guilt in a court of law—otherwise the warnings would be meaningless. But, the law doesn’t require interrogating police officers to “Mirandize” someone who isn’t technically “in custody.” As a result, police officers routinely question suspects after carefully letting them know that they are not under arrest and are free to leave—that way, officers don’t have to provide Miranda warnings. Even in that situation, though, suspects’ silence was sacrosanct: Prosecutors couldn’t use it against them at a later trial. That is, until recently.

You Can’t Be Silent if You Want to Be Silent

On Monday, June 17, 2013, in a closely-contested decision, the United States Supreme Court held that prosecutors can in fact point to an out-of-custody suspect’s silence in response to police questioning as evidence of guilt. (Salinas v. Texas, 133 S. Ct. 2174 (2013).) The only way to prevent the government from introducing evidence at trial of the suspect’s silence is to explicitly invoke the right to say nothing. In other words, without being warned by the police or advised by a lawyer, and without even the benefit of the familiar Miranda warnings (which might trigger a “I want to invoke my right to be silent!”), the interviewee must apparently say words to the effect of, “I’m not saying anything because I invoke my right to silence.”

In the case that led to this new rule, a police officer who was investigating a murder asked the suspect (and eventual defendant), who was not then in custody, a series of questions over the course of an hour. The officer did not Mirandize the suspect. The suspect answered the questions, but hesitated when the officer asked whether a ballistics test would prove that the shell casings at the crime scene matched the suspect’s gun. He fidgeted for a bit and didn’t answer the question; the officer then moved on to additional questions that the suspect answered. Prosecutors then charged the suspect with murder. At trial, they argued that his reaction to the officer’s shell-casing question suggested his guilt. The Court ruled that this argument by the prosecutors was proper because the defendant had not clearly indicated that he intended to assert his Fifth Amendment right when asked about the shell casings.

(Other courts have even held that prosecutors can use defendants' post-arrest, pre-Miranda-warning silence; see Can the government use arrestees' silence against them?)

What to Say to Invoke the Right to Silence

The new Supreme Court decision raises weighty questions, such as whether it’s reasonable to place the onus of asserting constitutional rights on everyday people, most of whom have never cracked the spine of a criminal procedure or constitutional law book. The more practical question is what, exactly, an out-of-custody person must say to inquisitive police officers in order to claim the right to silence. To be safe, they should make clear that they are invoking their Fifth Amendment right to silence and have nothing further to say. That way their subsequent failure to answer any questions cannot be mentioned at trial.

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