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What The Supreme Court's Ruling Could Mean For Your OWI Trial

By Andrew Mishlove on December 16, 2013


Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that has serious implications regarding the common understanding that persons have the right to remain silent during police interrogations, and can expect that right to not be used against them in court.

The High Court’s decision in Salinas v. Texas challenges our current understanding of Miranda, the constitutional right to remain silent, and possibly even how the police will conduct formal and informal interrogations going forward. It doesn't matter the type of crime, including Wisconsin OWIs, it is essential that anyone undergoing police questioning understands that after Salinas, they must formally assert their right to remain silent, even if they have not been read their Miranda rights.

This means that whether you are a suspect or are voluntarily answering police questions, you must specifically say “I choose to remain silent and want to speak to an attorney,” even if you have not formally been given your Miranda rights and have not been placed under arrest.

How the Supreme Court’s Decision in Salinas May Affect Wisconsin OWI Trials

In the case of Salinas v. Texas, Salinas voluntarily agreed to talk to police about a murder that had taken place the day after Salinas attended a party at the home of two brothers who were shot and killed.

Salinas was not placed under arrest, nor was he read his Miranda rights. According to Slate, after answering many police questions, he was asked if the shells from his shotgun would match the shells found at the scene of the murders. Instead of answering this question, Salinas “looked down at the floor, shuffled his feet, bit his bottom lip, cl[e]nched his hands in his lap, [and] began to tighten up.”

At the trial, the prosecution used his non-verbal response to the police as evidence of his guilt, saying that instead of arguing with the police about not being involved in the murders, he remained silent. Salinas argued that he remained silent under his constitutional right to do so, so his refusal to answer the police about the shotgun should not be used against him in court.

The Supreme Court found that because Salinas was “free to leave” the station house and because he did not invoke his constitutional right to remain silent, his Fifth Amendment right was not violated.

The Court held that because the

“petitioner had not yet been placed in custody or received Miranda warnings, and voluntarily responded to some questions by police about a murder, the prosecution’s use of his silence in response to another question as evidence of his guilty at trial did not violate the Fifth Amendment because petitioner failed to expressly invoke his privilege not to incriminate himself in response to the officer’s question.”
This decision could give police officers incentive to conduct more informal questioning, and unless a suspected Wisconsin OWI driver specifically announces his right to remain silent.

However, according to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who, along with three other Justices, dissented against the Court’s decision in Salinas, the ruling puts a “defendant in an impossible predicament. He must either answer the question or remain silent” He continued, “If he answers the question, he may well reveal, for example, prejudicial facts, disreputable associates, or suspicious circumstances—even if he is innocent.” Yet, if he doesn’t answer, his silence or his actions could possibly be used against him.

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