Silence of Suspects Prevails in Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court made it clear in a recent ruling that a criminal suspect’s silence is not to be used against him or her in court. Of course, not using one’s silence as proof of guilt is an established legal principle, but one that was recently expanded in the court’s May 5th decision in Florida v. Horwitzpolice

The court was asked to decide whether, per article I, section 9 of the Florida Constitution and Florida evidentiary law, prosecutors are prohibited from using a defendant’s pre-arrest, pre-Miranda silence as some substantive evidence of his or her guilt when defendant chooses not to testify at trial. The 4th District Court of Appeal had ruled the answer was “No,” but certified the question to the state supreme court as one of great public importance.

A high-profile murder suspect, Donna Horwitz was accused and ultimately convicted of fatally shooting her ex-husband, Lanny. 

During trial, the state elicited testimony from numerous police witnesses who asserted the defendant remained silent following the murder and prior to her formal arrest. The state then brought up this silence again during closing arguments, stating the jurors could weigh defendant’s silence during this time as, “evidence of her conscious guilt.”

Jurors convicted her.

But on appeal, the 4th DCA reversed, citing the 1998 Florida Supreme Court decision in State v. Hoggins.

The Florida Supreme Court, in affirming the 4th DCA, stated that to use a defendant’s silence as some clear evidence of guilt violates one’s right to protection against self-incrimination that we all enjoy under the Florida Constitution. In terms of evidentiary value, the court ruled that one’s pre-arrest, pre-Miranda silence is often ambiguous, and more often than not, the probative value to the case is far outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice.

That means Horwitz gets a new trial – and defendants across Florida should feel confident in exercising their right to remain silent.

According to court records, the decedent was found shot multiple times in the home he was sharing with his ex-wife. The pair had divorced twice before, but were again living together at the time of his death. The couple’s adult son also lived at the home. Son testified the couple had been fighting and there was speculation by defendant that her husband was cheating on her, and he was planning to travel out-of-town with a female business associate.

It was only the three of them at the house at the time of husband’s death, but there was also some evidence that the shooting may have been a suicide. In fact, that’s how the call first came in to police. But there was also evidence the son had motive to murder his father, and he was initially a suspect too. Ultimately, investigators zeroed in on Horwitz.

When police arrived, they noted the fact that the wife didn’t say much. Defense later presented evidence she suffered from chronic partial deafness. An officer at the scene who asked if she wanted water said she put her finger to her ear and told him she could not hear.

But when prosecutors later used her silence in the moments after husband’s death against her, defense lawyers asserted this was “highly problematic from a constitutional and evidentiary perspective.”

So now Horwitz gets a new trial.

But beyond that, it’s expected this decision will influence street-level consensual encounters. As our Miami criminal defense lawyers know, had the court gone the other way with this, police could have rightly told a suspect they weren’t required to talk, but their silence could be used against them if they were later arrested.

Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a free consultation on your pending criminal matter.

Additional Resources:

Florida v. HorwitzMay 5, 2016, Florida Supreme Court

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Judge in Florida v. Gaiter: Florida Death Penalty Unconstitutional, May 5, 2016, Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog