Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Supreme Court Takes on Another Miranda Issue

Fresh off of two recent Miranda decisions the U.S. Supreme Court was back at it this week. On Monday, the High Court heard arguments in another Miranda case. This time the Court must decide whether a suspect's silence is itself enough to invoke his right to remain silent. Sound a little confusing? Obviously, there had to be a break in silence if the suspect "said" something incriminating.

Van Chester Thompkins was arrested for murder in 2001 and interrogated by police for three hours. At the beginning, Thompkins was read his Miranda rights and said he understood.

The officers in the room testified that Thompkins said little during the interrogation, occasionally answering "yes," ''no," ''I don't know." When one of the officers asked him if he prayed for forgiveness for "shooting that boy down," Thompkins said, "Yes."

He was convicted, but on appeal he requested that his statement be thrown out because he invoked his Miranda right to remain silent by his silence. The court of appeals agreed and threw out his confession.

According to the Associated Press, several Supreme Court justices indicated during Monday's argument that they might let the confession stand, saying suspects should tell police that they want to be silent to take advantage of that Miranda right.

"Why don't we have just a clear rule: You are read your rights; if you don't want to be questioned, all you have to say is 'I don't want to be questioned'?" Justice Antonin Scalia said. Last week Justice Scalia, writing on behalf of the majority in Maryland V. Shatzer, 08-860, set a clear rule of 14 days to rebut a presumption for invoking counsel as set forth in Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981).

Other justices saw problems with that rule, saying police should have known that Thompkins didn't want to cooperate by his lack of cooperation. "It's at least arguable that his silence indicated he wished to remain silent," Justice John Paul Stevens said.

My Take

It will be interesting to see if the Court provides some specificity as it did in Shatzer or takes a more hands-off approach as the Court did with last week's other Miranda decision in Florida v. Powell, 08-1175. It would appear, based on Justice Scalia's question, that at least he would be interested in a specific rule requiring some audible response to invoking the right to remain silent.

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