Supreme Court holds 'right to remain silent' must be unambiguously expressed

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Berghuis v. Thompkins [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that when Miranda warnings are properly given, a person wishing to invoke the right to remain silent must do so unambiguously. The court overturned a ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which held [opinion, PDF] that the defendant's nearly three-hour silence in response to questioning constituted a desire not to waive his rights and that the state failed to satisfy its heavy burden of showing such a waiver took place. In reversing the opinion below, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

There is good reason to require an accused who wants to invoke his or her right to remain silent to do so unambiguously. A requirement of an unambiguous invocation of Miranda rights results in an objective inquiry that avoid[s] difficulties of proof and ... provide[s] guidance to officers on how to proceed in the face of ambiguity. If an ambiguous act, omission, or statement could require police to end the interrogation, police would be required to make difficult decisions about an accused unclear intent and face the consequence of suppression if they guess wrong. Suppression of a voluntary confession in these circumstances would place a significant burden on society interest in prosecuting criminal activity.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent, calling the ruling a "retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination." She was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

In 1966, the court held in Miranda v. Arizona [opinion text] that "[i]f the individual indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease." The present case arose after Van Chester Thompkins was arrested and questioned for nearly three hours, but remained substantively silent during the questioning. He confessed to the murder after officers began speaking with him about religion. The respondent was convicted of murder at a jury trial, but the Sixth Circuit overturned the conviction when he appealed seeking habeas corpus relief on the basis that his Fifth Amendment [text] rights had been violated.

 

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