In June 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that a criminal suspect must explicitly and "unambiguously" tell police he wants to remain silent. Until he does so, police may continue to question and interrogate him. The ruling is inline with prior Court decisions requiring criminal suspects to clearly and unambiguously tell police they want a lawyer.
Van Chester Thompkins' silence during the three-hour interrogation by police officers didn't raise or invoke his right to remain silent. He never said he wanted to remain silent or that he didn't want to talk to the officers. So, the incriminating statement he made toward the end of the interrogation could be used against him in his murder trial.
It should be noted that in a brief she filed on behalf of the US Government, new Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan sided with the police officers in the case. The newest member of the Court, Justice Sotomayor, didn't agree with the Court's decision and sided with Thompkins.
This isn't the first time the Court has dealt with Miranda in 2010:
- In Florida v. Powell, the Court ruled that police officers didn't have to use any specific or precise wording when advising a suspect of his right to an attorney
- In Maryland v. Shatzer, the Court ruled that a suspect who asserts his right to remain silent can be questioned again by police after 14 days. If the suspect makes incriminating statements, they may be used against him in court
The US Supreme Court will soon be hearing a case that may change one of the most important legal principals in criminal law - your Miranda rights. The case decides whether to expand the scope to situations where police question suspects who claim they understand their Miranda rights but don't immediately use them.
What Are Miranda Rights?
The Miranda Rights date back to 1966 when the US Supreme Court decided the historic case of Miranda v. Arizona. The Court decided that whenever a person is taken into police custody, he must be told of his Fifth Amendment rights before the police can question him.
The Fifth Amendment rights protect you from making any incriminating statements against yourself. As a result of Miranda, anyone in police custody must be told four things before being questioned:
- You have the right to remain silent
- Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law
- You have the right to an attorney
- If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you
What If the Police Fail to Advise Me of My Miranda Rights?
If police officers question you in custody without first telling you of your Miranda rights, any statement or confession you make will be determined to be involuntary and can't be used against you in court. Also, any evidence discovered as a result of that confession will likely be thrown out of the case.
For example, imagine that you're arrested and questioned by police officers about a house robbery that just occurred. The police officers didn't read you your Miranda rights. Not realizing that you have the right to remain silent to this questioning, you confess to the robbery and tell the police where some of the items are hidden. Using this information, the police find the stolen items.
In court, your confession will likely be challenged. The judge may find your confession unlawful, resulting in not only the confession being thrown out of the case, but the items themselves, since they were discovered as a result of the unlawful confession.
The Thompkins Case
The case that will be heard by the Supreme Court is Berghuis v. Thompkins. This case addresses what happens when a suspected criminal is read his Miranda rights but doesn't explicitly agree to either invoke or waive his Miranda rights.
Thompkins was arrested and was interrogated by police for three hours. The police read him the Miranda rights and he said he understood them. Thompkins said little during the interrogation. He sometimes gave single word answers such as "yes," "no," "I don't know," or nodded his head. However, when one of the officers asked him if he prayed for forgiveness for "shooting that boy down," Thompkins answered, "Yes." 1
He was convicted due to that statement which was considered a confession. But on appeal he wanted that statement thrown out because he claimed that by being uncommunicative with the police, he invoked his Miranda rights and the police should have stopped questioning him.
The appeal court agreed and threw out his confession and conviction, explaining that "Thompkins' persistent silence for nearly three hours in response to questioning and repeated invitations to tell his side of the story offered a clear and unequivocal message to the officers: Thompkins didn't wish to waive his rights." 2
However, the government lawyers didn't agree with this ruling, claiming that it is a new addition to Miranda rights and they asked the Supreme Court to reinstate Thompkins' conviction. "Neither Miranda or its progeny prohibit interaction between an officer and a defendant after warnings have been given and acknowledged but before the invocation of rights," Michigan Attorney General Michael Cox said in court papers.3
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in this case in 2010 and will hopefully clarify exactly what police can do after reading a suspect his Miranda rights. The Thompkins case is the second Miranda case the Court will decide this term. The Court will also hear arguments in December on the issue of whether suspects must be told that they have the right to have a lawyer present during police questioning.
We will keep you updated on the case.
1Associated Press, Supreme Court takes Michigan case on Miranda rights, The Michigan Daily, Oct. 1, 2009, http://www.michigandaily.com/content/supreme-court-takes-michigan-case-miranda-rights, accessed Oct. 8, 2009.