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The privilege against self-incrimination is an exception to the general principle that the Government has the right to everyone’s testimony. To prevent the privilege from shielding information not properly within its scope, a witness who desires the protection of the privilege must claim it at the time he relies on it. That requirement ensures that the Government is put on notice when a witness intends to rely on the privilege so that it may either argue that the testimony sought could not be self-incriminating, or cure any potential self-incrimination through a grant of immunity. The express invocation requirement also gives courts tasked with evaluating a Fifth Amendment claim a contemporaneous record establishing the witness’s reasons for refusing to answer. In these ways, insisting that witnesses expressly invoke the privilege assures that the Government obtains all the information to which it is entitled.
On Dec. 18, 1992, two brothers were shot and killed in their Houston home. There were no witnesses to the murders, but a neighbor who heard gunshots saw someone run out of the house and speed away in a dark-colored car. The investigation led police to petitioner Genovevo Salinas who had been a guest at a party the victims hosted the night before they were killed. Salinas answered most questions during the subsequent interview with police—Genovevo had not been read Miranda warnings—but he declined to answer when asked if his shotgun his shotgun would match the shells recovered at the murder scene. Genovevo was later charged with the murders, but only after police obtained a statement from a man who said he had heard Genovevo confess to the killings. At trial in Texas state court and over Genovevo's objection, prosecutors used his reaction to the officer's question about the shotgun as evidence of his guilt. The jury found Genovevo guilty, and he received a 20-year sentence. On direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Texas, Genovevo argued that the State's use of his silence as part of their case in chief violated the Fifth Amendment. The court rejected that argument, reasoning that Genovevo's prearrest, pre-Miranda silence was not "compelled" within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed on the same ground. Genovevo was granted a writ of certiorari.
Were Genovevo's Fifth Amendment rights violated when the State used his reaction to the officer's question about the shotgun as evidence of his guilt at trial?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court found that Genovevo's situation was outside the scope of Miranda because he agreed to accompany the officers to the station and was free to leave at any time during the interview. The privilege against self-incrimination generally was not self-executing and a witness who desired its protection had to claim it. According to the Court, a witness did not invoke the privilege by simply standing mute. In this regard, Genovevo was required to assert the privilege in order to benefit from it. Thus, Genovevo's Fifth Amendment claim failed because he did not expressly invoke the privilege against self-incrimination in response to the officer's question. The Court rejected Genovevo's argument that the invocation requirement did not apply where a witness was silent in the face of official suspicions.