Sunday, August 1, 2010

Speak Up to Remain Silent: An Analysis of Berghuis v. Thompkins

Anyone who's seen even one episode of a cop show on TV knows the Miranda warnings: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."  And so on.  What most people don't realize is that those are simply the rights enumerated in the fifth and sixth amendments.  Police have been required to inform suspects of those rights since the Supreme Court's ruling in Miranda v. Arizona in 1966. After those warnings, a suspect can request a lawyer, or they can start talking to the police.

The ruling in Berghuis v. Thompkins, though decried by some as an abuse of suspects'/prisoners' rights, is actually a welcome clarification as to how these rights can we waived or claimed. It says that "If the accused makes an 'ambiguous or equivocal' statement or no statement, the police are not required to end the interrogation". In other words, if you want to remain silent, you must say so. Simply remaining silent is not enough to claim the right against self-incrimination, a statement something along the lines of "I'm not going to talk to the police" must be made. (Sotomayor's dissent criticized that decision, because she said police were not likely to inform suspects what words to use to invoke their right. I . . . don't think it's that hard to figure out.) This is not a decision that comes out of the blue: The Court already rules in Davis v. United States that a suspect's right to counsel must be unambiguously invoked; there is no reason to treat the right to remain to silent any differently.

The facts of the case are these: Van Chester Thompkins was arrested in 2000 for his role in a drive-by shooting in Michigan. As Lyle Denniston wrote for SCOTUSblog, "At the beginning, they warned him about his rights, and asked him to read part of the list out loud, to make sure he understood English. But he refused to sign the form, showing he understood his rights. There is a dispute about whether he ever was asked orally whether he understood the warnings." During his three hour interrogation, he was mostly silent, answering very few questions (when he did answer, it was in monosyllables). Near the end, the officers asked if Thompkins prayed to god for forgiveness for shooting the boy, and Thompkins answered "yes". That was used as his confession in court, and he was convicted. He later appealed, saying that he, by his general uncooperativeness, had invoked his right to silence. After all the state courts ruled against him, he finally won in the Sixth Circuit. Michigan appealed to the Supreme Court.

Although I don't agree that this is a sweeping re-writing or gutting of the Miranda ruling, warning, or rights, this case offered the opportunity for such re-interpretation. But the thing is, Thompkins really did himself no favors during his interrogation. As Justice Kennedy says, “If Thompkins wanted to remain silent, he could have said nothing in response to [the detective's] questions, or he could have unambiguously invoked his Miranda rights and ended the interrogation.” Thompkins had answered some questions earlier in the interrogation, and he had refused to answer others. He could easily have not said anything.

This ruling is a welcome clarification for suspects and police officers alike. As the American Thinker wrote, "In assessing the rights and requirements of both law enforcement and the accused, the Supreme Court has applied a reasonable standard to both parties while balancing the rights of the individual with the necessity of protecting lawful interrogations." Under this decision, it will be clear what statements are and aren't admissible in Court. Miranda requires that a suspect "knowingly and intelligently" waived his rights. Well, Thompkins answered questions posed to him by the police. I can't think of any situation in which that would not be considered a waiver of the right to remain silent. Thompkins follows established precedent (the Davis case) and places responsibility on both the police and the suspect, protecting both their rights, while making it easier for the police to gain admissible confessions legally an constitutionally.

As a side note, I find it rather amusing that I, the liberal, am siding with the conservatives in this case; and Ashley, the conservative, is siding with the liberals :).

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