Berghuis v. Thompkins: U.S. Supreme Court Holds That One Must Speak to Invoke the Right to Remain Silent

The United States Supreme Court decided two important federal criminal cases yesterday. We discussed the reasonable opinion in U.S. v. Carr, a SORNA case, in this post yesterday. We must now address the disappointing decision in Berghuis v. Thompkins, which we briefly explained in this post last October.

The Court divided along traditional ideological lines, with Justice Kennedy issuing the majority opinion joined by the conservative bloc and Justice Sotomayor writing a lengthy dissent for the liberal justices. The majority held, counter-intuitively, that a person must make an unambiguous statement to invoke his right to remain silent.

In this case, Mr. Thompkins was in custody, awaiting transfer to another state. He was seated in a hard, straight-backed chair in a small room. With the exception of declining a peppermint and commenting on his chair’s discomfort, he remained silent for nearly three hours of interrogation, until asked whether he believed in God. He said, “Yes.” and began to cry. When asked if he prayed, he again said, “Yes.” He was then asked if he prayed to God for forgiveness “for shooting that boy down.” Again, he said, “Yes,” and looked away. He refused to sign a Miranda waiver form or make a written statement.

The Court analogized the issue to the Miranda right to counsel, which must be invoked unambiguously and unequivocally. The majority opinion noted a desire to avoid difficulties of proof and provide guidance to officers. In addition, the Court held that Thompkins waived his right to remain silent because he chose to speak and there was no basis to conclude that he did not understand his rights. Police are not required to rewarn suspects and, the Court held, nearly three hours of interrogatory monologue in a straight-backed chair did not amount to coercion.

Both the majority opinion and dissent in Berghuis v. Thompkins are available here.

SCOTUSblog rounded up comments from and links to articles regarding the controversial opinion in this post this morning.