WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday
enhanced prosecutors' ability to assert that a suspect waived his right
to remain silent even when he did not say so.
The decision in a murder case from Michigan broke
along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy
writing the opinion joined by fellow conservatives.
The four liberals dissented in an opinion by
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a
former Manhattan prosecutor who warned that, "Today's decision turns
Miranda upside down."
The 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling — which
protects suspects against self-incrimination and requires the warnings
police give people in custody to let them know they have the right to
remain silent — has been deeply woven into American culture. Yet, it
remains controversial, as recent debate over Miranda rights for
terrorism suspects shows.
Tuesday's case did not touch on that controversy
but rather addressed ambiguous signals a suspect may send regarding
whether he wants an interrogation to stop after he has been properly
read his rights.
The Michigan case specifically tested what
happens when a suspect says barely anything during questioning but near
the end blurts out an incriminating statement, and then claims that he
had wanted to remain silent and that the statement was not made
Van Chester Thompkins, accused of first-degree
murder in the 2000 shooting death of Samuel Morris outside a mall in
Southfield, Mich., said little to police during a three-hour
interrogation, at the start of which he had been read the Miranda
warnings. He never explicitly said he wanted to stay silent and he never
asked for a lawyer.
At one point, an officer asked, "Do you believe
in God?" Thompkins said yes. The officer then asked, "Do you pray to God
to forgive you for shooting that boy down?" Thompkins said yes and
looked away, according to the record in the case.
A jury found Thompkins guilty of murder and he
was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On appeal, Thompkins said he invoked his right to
remain silent by refusing to answer questions for a long period of time
and that the interrogation should have ended before he made his
A U.S. appeals court agreed, rejecting arguments
from Michigan officials that there was an implied waiver of Thompkins'
right to remain silent.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision.
"Where the prosecution shows that a Miranda
warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, accused's
uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver of the right to remain
silent," Kennedy wrote. "As a general proposition, the law can presume
that an individual who, with a full understanding of his or her rights,
acts in a manner inconsistent with their exercise has made a deliberate
choice to relinquish the protection those rights afford."
Kennedy said Thompkins waived his right to remain
silent by answering the officer's questions.
He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and
Sotomayor called their decision "a substantial
retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination."
In her most passionate opinion to date,
Sotomayor, who joined the court last year, said the majority decision
undercuts the "heavy burden" the government should carry to show that a
defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his right against
Sotomayor said the decision also creates an
"unworkable and conflicting set of presumptions" for law enforcement
agencies and trial judges to follow.
She was joined in Berghuis v. Thompkins by
Justices John Paul Stevens,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
and Stephen Breyer.