Berghuis v. Thompkins

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court decided Berghuis v. Thompkins, an important Miranda case. (There are other issues in the case, too, but this post will focus on the Miranda claim.)

The basic facts, taken from the Court’s syllabus, are as follows:

After advising respondent Thompkins of his rights, in full compliance with Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436, Detective Helgert and another Michigan officer interrogated him about a shooting in which one victim died. At no point did Thompkins say that he wanted to remain silent, that he did not want to talk with the police, or that he wanted an attorney. He was largely silent during the 3-hour interrogation, but near the end, he answered “yes” when asked if he prayed to God to forgive him for the shooting.

Thompkins moved to suppress the statement, arguing that he had in effect asserted, or at least had not waived, his right to remain silent. The trial judge ruled against him, and after he was convicted, so did the state appellate court. He sought habeas relief in federal court, but the district court rejected his claim. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that his statement did not constitute an implicit waiver of his right to remain silent.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that “Thompkins’ silence during the interrogation did not invoke his right to remain silent,” or at least did not do so unambiguously, as precedent requires. “Had Thompkins said that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk, he would have invoked his right to end the questioning,” but he did not do so. Instead, “Thompkins waived his right to remain silent when he knowingly and voluntarily made a statement to police. . . . If the State establishes that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, an accused’s uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver.” Nor does a suspect’s waiver of his Miranda rights need to precede questioning: “After giving a Miranda warning, police may interrogate a suspect who has neither invoked nor waived Miranda rights.”

The holding that Thompkins did not assert his right to remain silent by simply remaining silent is consistent with prior North Carolina cases such as State v. Westmoreland, 314 N.C. 442 (1985) (defendant who remained silent, except for occasional brief boilerplate denials of involvement, “only showed that he did not desire to respond to specific questions” and did not thereby assert his right to remain silent). The holding that Thompkins waived his right to remain silent simply by responding to a question, without previously expressing in some way that he was willing to answer questions, may be more consequential, and more controversial. Cf., e.g., 2 Wayne R. LaFave et al., Criminal Procedure § 6.9(d) (“[A] waiver is not established merely by showing that a defendant was given . . . Miranda warnings and thereafter gave an incriminating statement,” perhaps even when it is clear that the defendant understood the warnings).

I’m still digesting the case, and may post more thoughts later. For now, I’m on the fence about the importance of the decision. My sense is that it won’t matter in most cases — because most suspects either want to talk or quickly say that they aren’t willing to answer questions — but when it does matter, it will matter a lot.

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