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Berghuis v. Thompkins – Latest Miranda Rights Case

On June 1, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its latest opinion interpreting Miranda rights and specifically the right to remain silent during interrogation. Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. ___ (2010). This case arises out of the Sixth Circuit (Michigan) where a fatal shooting occurred at a mall. Id., Slip Op. at *2. Defendant Thompkins was a suspect in the incident and had fled the state. Id. About one year later he was apprehended in Ohio and was interrogated for about 3 hours in the afternoon. Id. Thompkins was given a paper that outlined his Miranda rights and was asked to read the last of five rights out loud; he refused to sign it when asked to do so as an indication that he acknowledged understanding of his rights. Id. at *3. Officers began an interrogation. At no point did Thompkins say that he wished to remain silent, but remained so for most of the interrogation. Id.

At about 2 hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, one of the officers asked Thompkins, “Do you believe in God?” Thompkins, Slip Op. at *3. In response, Thompkins made eye contact with the officer who noticed that Thompkins eyes welled up with tears. The officer, Helgert, asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” Thompkins answered “Yes” and looked away. Id., Slip Op. at *4. Thompkins refused to make a written confession and the interrogation ended about 15 minutes later. Id.

At trial, Thompkins moved to suppress the statement and the trial court rejected the motion. Id. Slip Op. at *6. The Michigan Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan both denied relief to Thompkins. Id. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reverse, ruling for Thompkins on his Miranda claim. 547 F.3d 572 (2008). The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court incorrectly based its decision on an unreasonable determination that Thompkins had waived his right. Thompkins, Slip Op. at *7. The Court of Appeals distinguished an inferred waiver of the right to remain silent from the situation in which Thompkins remained silent for over two and one-half hours: his “persistent silence” was un “unequivocal message” that he wished to remain silent.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Thompkins makes various arguments that his answers to questions from detectives were inadmissible. Primarily, Thompkins contends that he “invoke[d] his privilege” to remain silent by not saying anything for a sufficient period of time. Id. Slip Op. at *8-9. However, the Court finds this argument unpersuasive because prevailing case law requires that a suspect do so “unambiguously.” Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994). Police are not required to end any interrogation or to ask clarifying questions. Id. at 459, 461-62. Suppression of a voluntary confession in ambiguous circumstances would place a significant burden on society’s interest in prosecuting criminal activity. See Id., at 459-61; Moran v. Burdine, 475 U.S. 412, 427 (1986). In this case, Thompkins did not state that he wished to remain silent or that he did not want to talk to police. Thus, he did not invoke his Miranda right.

Next, the Court had to consider whether Thompkins waived his right. A custodial interrogation is inadmissible at trial unless the prosecution can establish that the accused “in fact knowingly and voluntarily waived [Miranda] rights. North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369, 373 (1979). The Court states that “Where the prosecution shows that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, an accused’s uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver of the right to remain silent.” Thompkins, Slip Op. *12-13. The Court states that the facts of this case show that Thompkins understood his rights and understood and knew what he gave up when he spoke. Id. at *13-14. The Court finds that Thompkins “course of conduct” that indicated waiver. Butler, at 373. Instead of invoking or re-invoking his Miranda rights, Thompkins waived his right by answering the officer. Thus, Thompkins waived his right to remain silent.

Butler indicates that, after giving a Miranda warning, officials may interrogate a suspect who has neither invoked nor waived his Miranda rights. Thompkins, Slip Op. at *17. Thus, in this case, the Court states that officials were not required to obtain a waiver of Miranda rights prior to interrogating Thompson. In short, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals with instructions to deny Thompson’s petition. Id., Slip Op. at *19.

Justice Sotomayor writes a dissent in which she focuses on the record that shows that Thompson was nearly completely silent during the 3 hour interrogation. Helgert, describes the interrogation as “very, very one-sided” and “nearly a monologue.” Id., Slip Op. at *22. The dissent is convinced that the prosecution did not meet its heavy burden to show that Thompson knowingly and affirmatively waived his right to remain silent. The dissent states that the government must satisfy the “high standar[d] of proof for the waiver of constitutional rights [set forth in] Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938),” and should recognize that the question whether a suspect has validly waived his right is “entirely distinct” as  a matter of law from whether he invoked that right. Smith v. Illinois, 469 U.S. 91, 98 (1984) (per curiam).

The dissent thinks that the Court “announces a new general principle of law” because the facts of this case so closely follows the facts and discussion finding for a right to remain silent in Miranda. Thompkins, Slip Op. at *29-32. The dissent explains that the Court appears to needlessly extend Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 461 (1994), which addressed a right to counsel, not the right to remain silent.  Id., Slip Op. at *44. While I am more persuaded by the majority, the dissent brings up a great point: criminal suspects, under this new opinion, must now speak to affirmatively and successfully invoke their right to remain silent.