Comment on silence

Direct comments on the exercise of the right to silence are usually quite clear and should draw an immediate objection.   Our friends at federalevidence review have a comment. What isn’t so clear are indirect or implied or subtle comments.   This is a particular bugaboo of my when LE agents and trial counsel stray from the correct path.  This involves judgment and discretion on whether to object.

When does the introduction of evidence constitute an indirect comment on a defendant’s silence, violating the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination? In a tax fraud case, the Seventh Circuit examined evidence how the government focused the the jury on the defendant’s lack of response. Even though the admission of the evidence was a harmless error, the circuit found that questions to the case agent regarding the alleged fraudulent scheme, though “subtle,” were no less in violation of the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights than more direct comments on a defendant’s silence, in United States v. Phillips, __ F.3d __ (7th Cir. March 14, 2014) (No. 12-2532)

It is coming up on fifty years since the Supreme Court clarified as part of Fifth Amendment jurisprudence that a defendant’s right against self-incrimination is violated by introduction of evidence that only indirectly comments on a defendant’s failure to respond to government charges. See, e.g.Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 615 (1965) (“We … hold that the Fifth Amendment … forbids either comment by the prosecution on the accused’s silence [at trial] or instructions by the court that such silence is evidence of guilt.”) The normal test of the violation of this requirement is that the evidence would “naturally and necessarily” be construed as a comment on the defendant’s silence. The Seventh Circuit recently examined this exclusion, explaining and describing a standard approach to dealing with evidence that possibly strays into this type of constitutional violation.