June 1st, 2010
01:34 PM ET
4 years ago

High court: Suspects must directly invoke right to remain silent

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that if criminal suspects fail to invoke their right to remain silent, they have waived that right.
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that if criminal suspects fail to invoke their right to remain silent, they have waived that right.

Washington (CNN) – If criminal suspects fail to invoke their right to remain silent, they have waived that right, a divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The high court upheld the murder conviction of a man who did not verbally assert his right to remain silent during his police interrogation. In a 5-4 ruling, the court said a suspect must explicitly tell officers he or she is asserting that right, known as Miranda rights.

The famous constitutional "right to remain silent" and the "right to talk to a lawyer before answering any questions" are among the well-known warnings all criminal suspects must be given upon arrest. The conservative court has generally been supportive in recent years, when police challenges to Miranda rights have been raised.

"A suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to police," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court.

Van Chester Thompkins was convicted of a January 10, 2000, murder outside a shopping mall in Southfield, Michigan. He fled the scene, but was as arrested about a year later in Ohio.

Local police began what turned out to be a three-hour interrogation, with Thompkins at first forced to read aloud part of a copy of "constitutional rights" derived from the original Miranda case that went before the Supreme Court in 1966. The five rights included the warning "anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law," and "the right to decide at any time before or during questioning to use your right to remain silent."

Thompkins refused to sign the form and there was strong disagreement over whether he verbally confirmed he understood them. He remained mostly silent during questioning, but later implicated himself in the shooting. He was later convicted of first-degree murder and other offenses.

The court majority sided with the police's version of the events.

"Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk to police," Kennedy concluded. "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."

Kennedy's views were supported by Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati agreed with Thompkins his confession should be thrown out, but the high court reversed that decision.

In a sharp dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the court's ruling a "major retreat" from protections against self-incrimination guaranteed by the original Miranda ruling.

"Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent - which counterintuitively requires them to speak," she said. "At the same time, suspects will be legally presumed to have waived their rights even if they have given no clear expression of their intent to do so. Those results, in my view, find no basis in Miranda or our subsequent cases and are inconsistent with the fair-trial principles on which those precedents are grounded."

Sotomayor said the Thompkins ruling "turns Miranda upside down." Justices

John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer backed her conclusions.

Thompkins had implicated himself after police asked if he believed in God. After replying yes, officers then asked, "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?" asking about victim Samuel Morris. The court transcript said Thompkins replied "Yes," and turned away, but later refused to make a written confession.

The case is Berghuis v. Thompkins (08-1470).


Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. debra

    Sotomayor is so stupid....

    June 1, 2010 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  2. Thomas

    Sounds like a good decision.

    There are two separate but related issues here

    1. The right to remain silent – This can be demonstrated by simply not speaking. However, the right to remain silent does not, in itself, include a right not to be questioned.

    2. Incumbent to the right to remain silent and part of Miranda v Arizona is that when a suspect, under arrest, invokes his or her right to remain silent, the police must stop the questioning.

    How are the police supposed to tell the difference between someone not talking and someone invoking their right to remain silent?

    In the first case, the police can continue questioning and in the second case, they must stop.

    This decision by the SCOUS simply requires the suspect to inform the police that they are invoking their right to remain silent.

    June 1, 2010 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  3. guarg

    ""Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent – which counterintuitively requires them to speak," "

    This is the kind of jr hig/high school logic that does not belong on the supreme court.

    Teacher: "Ok class. Be Quiet and listen to instructions, Now, who has their project ready?"

    Class Jerk: I can't answer that, you told us to be quiet.

    It's the difference between concrete and abstract thought that Sotomeyer is goinh tit for tat with. It's something that we try to ween elementary school kids from when they hit middle school. And this lady is on the Supreme Court?

    June 1, 2010 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  4. Weepy

    Another 5-4 ruling? What is wrong with that Supreme Court? Are they so set in their prespectives that they can't deliberate themselves out of a paper bag? I used to be under the impression that all members of the Supreme Court were unbiased, "supremely" fair, and the smartest folks when it came to questions of the law and right and wrong. 5-4 is getting tiresome and sounds very fishy to me.

    June 1, 2010 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  5. DENNA

    Wow, what next? If the police decide that you did it, they can execute you on the spot? I thought the U.S. Supreme Court was on our side. Granted, there are a lot of criminals in this country who need to be locked up, but we need to be careful or everyone's rights will be usurped.

    June 1, 2010 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  6. eudemonist

    "Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent – which counterintuitively requires them to speak," she said.

    Umm, not really. I think they could unambiguously invoke their right to not answer questions by a much more intuitive method–you know, NOT ANSWERING QUESTIONS.

    June 1, 2010 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  7. Weepy

    Another 5-4 ruling? What is wrong with that Supreme Court? Are they so set in their perspectives that they can't deliberate themselves out of a paper bag? I used to be under the impression that all members of the Supreme Court were unbiased, "supremely" fair, and the smartest folks when it came to questions of the law and right and wrong. 5-4 is getting tiresome and sounds very fishy to me. Why not a 7-2 ruling some day?

    June 1, 2010 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  8. Tim - Wilmington, DE

    So what they're saying is that by not explicitly stating to the arresting officer(s) that you want to invoke your right to remain silent, and actually remain silent, you're therefore waiving your right to remain silent? And that the authorities will now assume that you've given up those rights just because you haven't said so? This is absolutely ridiculous. It's sadly just another example of the vengeful, Old Testament, fire and brimstone version of justice being shoehorned into our legal system by Scalia, Alito and Thomas.

    June 1, 2010 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  9. ThinkAgain

    So, after you've been told you have a right to remain silent, you have to break that silence and specifically say, "I want to invoke my right to remain silent"?

    You know, the right wing is always wailing on about how "government" interferes too much in our lives.

    And yet, with this ruling, they are taking away the individual's right to protect themselves from the government, by putting the burden on the individual, when the right itself is granted by the government.

    The five Justices in the majority opinion should be impeached for their sorry understanding of our Constitution.

    June 1, 2010 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  10. rob

    Sotomayor said the Thompkins ruling "turns Miranda upside down."

    I am no Lawyer but from this sentence it seems to me that ultimately Sotomayor's logic is that all persons who are arested should not be questioned at all because unless thay explicitly say they will talk, it should be presumed they don't want to talk therefore whatever they say can't be used against them. No more questioning suspects.

    Interesting opinion but the lefts favorite "Centrist" Justice wrote the Majority Opinion......

    "A suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to police," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court.

    Sounds pretty reasonable to me, but I guess he's a right wing radical whose out to take everyones rights away too.

    June 1, 2010 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  11. Jane

    Gee you mean people will actually have to take an action on their own?? What a novel idea....great decision from the supreme court. Cannot play the blame game on this one anymore.

    June 1, 2010 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  12. Obama the liar

    i hope that incompetent Holder finds the time to read this ruling before mouthing off again.

    June 1, 2010 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  13. Four and The Door

    Although the ACLU may disagree, this is a win in the Supreme Court for the American people. Sorry Sonya, but society's laws are really intended to keep people from becoming victims of crime rather than keeping perpetrators from becoming convicted. I'm all for making sure that convictions are based on good evidence and quality information, but there also has to be some consideration to ensuring that our laws can be effectively enforced.

    June 1, 2010 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  14. Henry Miller, Libertarian

    Wow! I actually agree with Sotomayor!

    The right to remain silent is right there in the Constitution, in the Fifth Amendment: "No person...shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself..." It shouldn't require a positive act to assert that right. To the contrary, it should take a positive act to waive it.

    June 1, 2010 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  15. ga

    This is a tough legal debate, i think i agree with the court....but in general i strongly believe that all american citizens should get all of the rights and protections of the consistution including miranda rights etc....but but but, non-citizens trying to kill innocent americans or american soldiers should NOT get US constitutional rights. If they meet the Geneva Convention criteria then they can have those rights. If they don't meet the Geneva Criteria and our trying to destroy our country than they get no rights! This is a war against religious extremists, terrorists and murders. The most important thing in war is to win! Lets win!

    June 1, 2010 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  16. Ivan Libya

    Good! Silence is NOT and should NOT be considered as a means to invoke their right to remain silent, that is just plain stupid. Well I didn't say anything you guys should have known I meant to remain silent on the issue? Really? Finally a good decision by the SC.

    June 1, 2010 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  17. MPeters

    Anyone who says that Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts are not judicial activists are nuts! Where's the respect for precedent, oh ye of Conservative Judging? Seriously.

    Worst. Decision. EVER.

    June 1, 2010 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  18. Phil in KC

    Sounds to me like he was not clear on his rights and the police tricked him into a 'back-door' confession. On the one hand, I support conviction of the truly guilty. On the other, I abhor this denegration of our 5th ammendment rights. That is why John Paul Stevens' replacement must be a liberal. We cannot tolerate a further movement to the right.

    June 1, 2010 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  19. OARFNY

    Way to go Sonia. Just make it up as you go along!

    June 1, 2010 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  20. Alex

    The fascist wing of the court has spoken... Too bad Obama is appointing one of their strongest allies in the White House to replace Stevens, but what do you expect from the right-wing Democratic Party?!?!

    June 1, 2010 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  21. Ben

    I find nothing wrong with this ruling. Sotomayor, as I've long suspected, must be on drugs.

    June 1, 2010 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  22. tony

    Wow i am shocked by this decision that a suspect have to tell the police that he want to remain silent. I agree with justice Sotomayor that Miranda right has been turned upside down, the congress must pass a law to maintain the originality of Miranda right.

    June 1, 2010 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |