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Silence Right Must Be Invoked Explicitly, Court Says

Criminal suspects must explicitly invoke their right to remain silent to force police to stop questioning, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

The 5-4 decision upholds the Michigan murder conviction of a man who sat silent throughout most of a three-hour interrogation by police. The ruling blunts the force of the landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision, which required police to inform suspects of their rights.

“A requirement of an unambiguous invocation of Miranda rights results in an objective inquiry that avoids difficulties of proof and provides guidance to officers on how to proceed in the face of ambiguity,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

The ruling divided the court along what have become familiar lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joining Kennedy in the majority.

“Today’s decision turns Miranda upside down,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent. “Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent -- which, counterintuitively, requires them to speak.”

Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Sotomayor in dissent.

Right Waived

The majority also ruled that the suspect, Van Chester Thompkins, waived his right to remain silent when he answered a question two hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation.

A police detective at that point asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” Thompkins answered, “Yes” and looked away.

Thompkins was convicted of murdering Samuel Morris outside a mall in Southfield, Michigan, in 2000. Another victim was wounded in the shooting.

Thompkins was sentenced to life in prison and appealed on several grounds, arguing that prosecutors shouldn’t have been permitted to use the statements he made to police during questioning.

The Supreme Court in 1994 ruled that the suspects must be unambiguous when they invoke their right to an attorney. The majority today said the latest ruling was a logical next step.

“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.”

Sotomayor said that, in contrast to the right-to-counsel context, suspects might be confused about what they need to do to invoke their right to be silent.

“Advising a suspect that he has a ‘right to remain silent’ is unlikely to convey that he must speak (and must do so in some particular fashion) to ensure the right will be protected,” she wrote.

The case is Berghuis v. Thompkins, 08-1470.

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