U.S. Supreme Court: Right to silence waived if you talk

Atlanta appeals attorneys have been reading closely a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Berghuis v. Thompkins. On June 1, the court decided that a man (Thompkins) who was convicted of murder had waived his right to remain silent when interrogated by the police.

The circumstances of the case made it more controversial than it sounds. Van Chester Thompkins was arrested in 2001 on suspicion of a fatal shooting that took place in 2000. He was read his Miranda rights, including the right to remain silent. The police continued to ask Thompkins questions, and Mr. Thompkins did not answer them. He remained silent regarding questions about the shooting, and he did this for two hours and forty-five minutes.

Then, police asked him three more questions:

“Do you believe in God?” Thomkins answered, “Yes.”

“Do you pray to God?” “Yes.”

“Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” “Yes.”

It was that third “yes” that was used against Thompkins at his trial for first degree murder. He was convicted.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a majority of the court, said that if a suspect responds to questions from the police, he is presumed to be waiving his right to remain silent.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for the minority in the 5-4 decision, said that it was not reasonable to expect a suspect to exercise their right to remain silent by affirmatively saying so. In her dissent, she suggested that if a suspect is ambiguous about wanting to remain silent, that the police should confirm that the suspect wants to waive the right to silence. They should ask questions like, “Do you want to talk to us?”

Source: New York Times, “Mere Silence Doesn’t Invoke Miranda, Justices Say,” June 1, 2010