Supreme Court Rules That Suspects Must Invoke Miranda ‘Right to Remain Silent’

According to a new ruling by the United States Supreme Court, a criminal defendant must explicitly invoke his or her right to remain silent by stating their intention to do so. Otherwise, any statements they make during questioning will be allowable in later court proceedings.

The 5-4 ruling, which was divided down ideological lines with the conservatives in the majority, comes in the case of a suspect who remained mostly silent during a three-hour session of questioning during a 2001 murder investigation. Van Chester Thompkins refused to answer most of the detectives’ inquiries, until one detective began asking about his religious beliefs and inquired whether Thompkins prayed forgiveness for “shooting that boy down.” Thompkins said “yes,” and later appealed his conviction on the grounds that he had invoked his Miranda right to silence by actually remaining silent. The Cincinnati-based U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and threw out his confession and therefore his conviction.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the decision, said that Thompkins would have had to actually tell police that he didn’t want to talk. By doing so, continued Kennedy, “he would have invoked his ‘right to cut off questioning.’”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a strongly worded, lengthy dissenting opinion, in which she said that this decision “turns Miranda upside down.”

“Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent—which counterintuitively, requires them to speak,” said Sotomayor. “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.”

The Miranda rights take their name from a landmark Supreme Court ruling that took place in 1966. Along with the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney is one of the first of the Miranda rights warnings, of which police must inform suspects during arrest and questioning. Suspects must tell the police that they want a lawyer, just as they must now inform police of their intention to remain silent in order to stop the questioning.

Thompkins, 33, will continue serving the life sentence to which he was originally sentenced for a January 10, 2000 murder in Southfield, Michigan. His attorney, Elizabeth Jacobs, called the ruling “very disappointing” and echoed Sotomayor’s opinion by saying that the Supreme Court is “diminishing Miranda rights as we know them.”

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