In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically reinterpreted its landmark Miranda decision by requiring criminal suspects to invoke their right to remain silent with a clear, explicit statement.
According to the Court, remaining silent or failing to cooperate, even during a long interrogation session, are no longer enough to stop any further questioning by law enforcement officials.
Berghuis, Warden v. Thompkins involved the case of Van Chester Thompkins, who was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, read his Miranda rights, and given an acknowledgement form that he refused to sign. After remaining silent for close to three hours, an officer asked, "Do you believe in God?" and "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?" Thompkins answered "Yes" to both questions. Thompkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole based on his monosyllabic responses.
Thompkins filed suit, alleging that his Miranda rights had been violated. Under the Court's decision, Thompkins' answer to the officer's question about religion constituted a waiver of his Miranda rights, even though he was silent for most of the interrogation.
"A suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to police," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority.
In a strongly worded dissent, which was joined by Justices Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the newest justice on the Court, wrote:
"Today's decision turns Miranda upside down. Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent—which, counter intuitively, requires them to speak. 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. Those results, in my view, find no basis in Miranda or our subsequent cases and are inconsistent with the fair-trial principles on which those precedents are grounded."
Criminal law professors on both left and right were critical of the opinion. Civil rights groups said that the Court's decision is yet another example of how the Roberts Court is failing to take into account the effects of the law on ordinary people.
On its blog yesterday, People For the American Way said:
"It's a perfect example of how the Roberts majority, while displaying remarkable ambivalence to the practical implications of its rulings, isn't just calling "balls and strikes"—it's going to bat for its own unprecedented agenda."