TeeJaw Blog

Supreme Court Prunes Miranda — Bringing It Closer To What The Constitution Actually Says

Posted in Government and Politics, Uncategorized by TeeJaw on Tuesday, June 1, 2010, 12: 48 PM

The Supreme Court today released its opinion in Berghuis v. Thompkins ____U.S. ____ (June 1, 2010) cutting back on the Miranda warning that it created in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 (1966).   This decision brings Miranda more in line with what the Constitution actually requires. Opinion by Justice Kennedy writing for a 5-4 majority, dissent by Sotomayor.

On January 10, 2000, a shooting occurred outside a mall in Southfield, Michigan. Among the victims was Samuel Morris, who died from multiple gunshot wounds. The other victim, Frederick France, recovered from his injuries and later testified. Thompkins, who was a suspect, fled. About one year later he was found in Ohio and arrested there.

Two Southfield police officers traveled to Ohio to interrogate Thompkins.  A proper Miranda warning was given and the officers proceeded to question Thompkins who remained silent for about 3 hours and then began to answer the officers’ questions.  The court held that Thompkins voluntary answers to the officers’ question was an effective waiver of his Miranda rights.  While Thompkins remained silent for 3 hours but without ever stating unequivocally and unambiguously that he wished to invoke his right to remain silent, the Court found nothing amiss in the officers’ continuing to question Thompkins.

About 2 hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, Southfield Officer Helgert asked Thompkins, “Do you believe in God?” Thompkins made eye contact with Helgert and said “Yes,” as his eyes “welled up with tears.”  Helgert asked, “Do you pray to God?” Thompkins said “Yes.” Helgert then asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?”  Thompkins answered “Yes” and looked away.  Thompkins refused to make a written confession, and the interrogation ended about 15 minutes later.  These statements by Thompkins were used at trial. Thompkins was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Thompkin’s motion to suppress his statements was rejected by the trial judge, also by the Michigan Supreme Court, and rejected in habeas corpus proceedings in a Federal District Court.  On appeal of the habeas result the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Thompkins had not waived his Miranda rights.  Certiorari was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court for de novo review of the 6th Circuit decision which the Supreme Court reversed today.

According to the Court of Appeals, Thompkins’s “persistent silence for nearly three hours in response to questioning and re- peated invitations to tell his side of the story offered a clear and unequivocal message to the officers: Thompkins did not wish to waive his rights.”  Thus, the 6th Circuit reasoned, the answers to Officer Helgert’s questions should have been suppressed.

Justice Kennedy saw two questions that needed to be answered under these facts.  First, did Thompkins ever invoke his right to remain silent?  Second, did Thompkins waive his right to remain silent?  The answers, Justice Kennedy holds, are no and yes.

As to the first question the Court today holds that a suspect must “unequivocally and unambiguously” communicate that he wishes to invoke his right to remain silent in order to effectively cut off questioning.  An ambiguous statement by a suspect requires police officers to make difficult decisions as to a suspect’s intent and penalizes them if they guess wrong.  It would also place a significant burden on society’s interest in prosecuting criminal activity.

Justice Kennedy said:

Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk with the police. Had he made either of these simple, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his “‘right to cut off questioning.’”  Here he did neither, so he did not invoke his right to remain silent.

Waiver, according to Kennedy, has two dimensions; it must be voluntary and knowing, i.e. it must be a free and deliberate choice rather than the product of intimidation, coercion, or deception,” and “made with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it.”

Under the facts of this case, Thompkins knowingly and voluntarily made a statement to police, so he waived his right to remain silent.

Sotomayor and the three justices joining with her in dissent agree that Thompkins did not effectively invoke his Miranda rights but believe that he also did not effectively waive them by answering Officer Helbert’s questions. They seem to think a written waiver was required. Clearly, that is no longer true if it ever was so.

The Supreme Court today moves the Constitution back toward what it actually says and away from artificial rules created by the Justices. That is a good thing.

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