Suspects must assert right to silence by Joan Biskupic – USA ToDAY

Posted: June 14, 2010 in News and politics
Suspects must assert right to silence

6/1/2010 8:14 PM |  Comments 23  |  Recommend 2

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 Enlarge By Jose Luis Magana, AP
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says defendants often use equivocal or colloquial language in attempting to invoke their right to silence.

By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court scaled back the well-known Miranda right Tuesday and enhanced prosecutors’ ability to assert that a suspect waived his right to remain silent even when he did not say so.

By a 5-4 vote, the justices said that once rights have been read and questioning begun, a suspect must clearly declare that he wants to remain silent and cannot simply be silent.

The decision in a Michigan case 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 the decision "turns Miranda upside down."

She said defendants often use equivocal or colloquial language in attempting to invoke their right to silence and that requiring a clear declaration would weaken the right.

"There is no question that this decision authorizes lower courts to construe ambiguous situations in favor of police and prosecutors," said Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg.

The 1966 Miranda v. Arizona, which protects suspects against self-incrimination and requires police to warn suspects they have a right to remain silent and can have a lawyer present, has been deeply woven into American culture. Yet it often spurs controversy, as revealed in recent debate over such rights for terrorist suspects arrested in the USA.

Tuesday’s case did not involve when a suspect should be read rights. Rather, it addressed what happens when a suspect declines to answer hours of questions, then makes a potentially incriminating statement and later says he had wanted to remain silent and that his statement was not made freely.

Van Chester Thompkins, suspected in the 2000 shooting death of Samuel Morris outside a mall in Southfield, Mich., said little during a nearly three-hour interrogation, at the start of which he was read Miranda warnings.

Two hours and 45 minutes later, 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."

Thompkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

On appeal, he said he invoked his right to remain silent by refusing to answer questions for a long period of time and that his statements should not have been used at trial.

A U.S. appeals court agreed, rejecting Michigan officials’ claim that Thompkins had waived his rights. U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, representing the Obama administration and now a nominee for the court, sided with Michigan in its appeal. She said a suspect must clearly assert his right to silence.

The Supreme Court majority agreed.

"Where the prosecution shows that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, an accused’s uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver of the right to remain silent," Kennedy wrote.

He said Thompkins waived his right by answering the detective’s questions. Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Sotomayor called their decision "a substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination." She said it undercuts the "heavy burden" the government should have to show that a defendant gave up his right against self-incrimination.

Joining her were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Advocates on both sides agreed the court had pared back Miranda.

Kent Scheidegger of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said the court recognized "the practical realities that police face … with suspects."

Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union called the decision a "significant erosion" of Miranda and said the case showed how a suspect can be worn down in questioning.


6/1/2010 8:07 PM

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