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Supreme Court: Suspects must assert Miranda right to remain silent

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that criminal suspects must clearly state that they don't want to talk with police to exercise their Miranda rights. Silence during interrogation is not enough.

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The trial judge allowed the statement to be introduced as evidence. Thompkins was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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On appeal, a federal judge rejected Thompkins’ claim that he had invoked his right to remain silent during the interrogation. That decision was reversed by a panel of the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The appeals court said Thompkins’ incriminating statement must be thrown out because his nearly three hours of silence in the interrogation room amounted to an invocation of his right to remain silent.

Ambiguity by the suspect

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. In a majority opinion joined by the court’s conservative wing, Justice Kennedy said Thompkins’ actions during the interrogation were ambiguous.

“Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk with the police,” Kennedy wrote. “Had he made either of these simple, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his right to cut off questioning.”

Kennedy added: “Here he did neither, so he did not invoke his right to remain silent.”

Writing in dissent for the court’s liberal wing, Sotomayor said the majority opinion “turns Miranda upside down.”

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

Kennedy said Thompkins’ reply to the police question about praying to God for forgiveness for shooting the victim is a course of conduct that indicated that the suspect had waived his right to remain silent.

“If Thompkins wanted to remain silent, he could have said nothing in response to [the officer’s] questions, or he could have unambiguously invoked his Miranda rights and ended the interrogation,” Kennedy said.

“The fact that Thompkins made the statement about three hours after receiving a Miranda warning does not overcome the fact that he engaged in a course of conduct indicating waiver,” he wrote. “Thompkins knowingly and voluntarily made a statement to police, so he waived his right to remain silent.”

A green light for lengthy interrogations?

Sotomayor disagreed. “Today’s clear-statement rule for invocation invites police to question a suspect at length – notwithstanding his persistent refusal to answer questions – in the hope of eventually obtaining a single inculpatory response which will suffice to prove waiver of rights,” she said.

The case is Berghuis v. Thompkins.