Under the Florida and United States constitutions, people who have been arrested or are otherwise considered to be in police custody have a right to remain silent. This means that the police cannot force them to make any statements that might incriminate them in a criminal case. As part of that right, if a person chooses to invoke his/her right to remain silent and refuse to answer any questions from the police, the state cannot use that person’s silence against him/her in court. In other words, the prosecutor cannot argue that the police arrested the defendant, asked him/’her about the crime, the defendant did not deny it so he/she must be guilty.
However, the United States Supreme Court recently decided a case where the state was allowed to use the defendant’s silence against him in a criminal trial. In this case, the defendant was not technically under arrest, and he started answering questions about a murder. However, during the questioning, the police asked certain questions about what the suspect thought the results would be from ballistics tests the police might run on shell casings. In response to those questions, the suspect remained silent. The suspect was ultimately arrested and put on trial for murder. At the trial, the state used the defendant’s silence in response to the ballistics questions against him arguing that he failed to answer those questions because the defendant knew his answers would incriminate him.
For a suspect being questioned about a crime, the safest course of action is to remain silent and clearly ask for a lawyer. If a suspect starts answering questions and then is silent in response to other questions, the state might be able to use that silence against the defendant at trial. Additionally, if the suspect is not clear and assertive about his/her desire to remain silent and speak with a lawyer rather than answer questions, it may not be sufficient to invoke his/her constitutional right to remain silent. Until the suspect knows exactly where the police are coming from and has spoken to a criminal defense lawyer who understands the laws and the suspect’s rights, it is very important to clearly request an attorney and remain silent. A vague or halfhearted request for a criminal defense attorney will not be good enough. A lot of people are spending a lot of time in prison because they thought they could talk their way out of a criminal case in a situation whwere the police are holding all of the cards.