In criminal law, the right to remain silent was first established in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), as a constitutional right. Miranda laid the groundwork for many cases (Leo 621), but Berghuis v. Thompkins 560 U.S. 370 (2010), is arguably the most important case related to Miranda in recent history. In Berghuis, new precedent was set for determining whether a waiver of the right to remain silent must be expressly implied.
In Berghuis, a man named Thompkins was arrested and interrogated after a shooting in Southfield, Michigan, in which one victim died. Thompkins was given a piece of paper with his Miranda rights explained on it; he was asked to sign the document saying that he understood his rights, but he refused. During the interrogation, which lasted nearly three hours, he gave minimal responses to the officers who were questioning him. One of the few answers he did give, was in response to whether he was praying to God about the shooting, to which he replied, “Yes.” It was this statement which he later wanted excluded as inadmissible.
His argument was that by remaining largely silent during the interrogation proceedings, that he had invoked his Miranda rights. However, the court did not see this in the same light as the defense did. One issue was that he did not make an unambiguous or unequivocal statement as to whether he wanted to waive his right to counsel. The Supreme Court found in Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994), if a criminal suspect does not state unambiguously or unequivocally, that he or she does not want counsel, police officers are not responsible for ending the interrogation or asking the person if he or she wants to stop the interrogation.
Another issue which the court determined to hold against Thompkins was the question of whether he knowingly and voluntarily waived his rights after being provided the document with the Miranda warnings listed on it. Just because he did not sign the paper did not mean he did not understand his rights; the prosecution had to prove that he did. The fact that he had not been coerced in any way also played a part in the court’s decision, because there was no real reason for him to begin speaking after maintaining silence for so long. Thompkins also argued that the detective was responsible for obtaining a waiver from him in order to proceed with the interrogation. Once again, the court found against Thompkins, citing North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369 (1979). In Butler, the court held that a waiver of rights can be inferred based on the interrogated person’s actions or words.
Justice Sotomayer wrote the dissenting opinion, stating that Thompkins is entitled to relief under AEDPA because his statement was admitted at trial without the prosecution having to prove he had waived his rights. The dissenting argument states the Berghuis decision favors the police, and detracts from Miranda. From the Berghuis dissenting opinion, “Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent—which, counterintuitively, requires them to speak.” Berghuis, supra. How ironic.
If 75% of criminal suspects give up the right to remain silent, then this means there is still another 25% of suspects who do not waive this right . The problem with the Berghuis decision is that it tips the scales of justice, so to speak, in favor of law enforcement. By forcing a suspect to unequivocally express his wish to invoke the Miranda rights, we will end up with a smaller proportion of people who will be protected by the Miranda decision. Those who are unaware of this new ruling may believe they are invoking a constitutional right against self-incrimination, while in reality, are merely being baited on by the police. The narrower a definition, the less protection it will offer to those who probably need it the most.
Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 . Supreme Court of the United States. 2010.
Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 . Supreme Court of the United States. 1994.
Leo, Richard A. "The Impact of Miranda Revisited." 86 J. Crim. L. & Criminology (1996): 621, 653. 14 April 2016. <http://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6874&context=jclc>.
Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 . Supreme Court of the United States. 1996.
North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369 . Supreme Court of the United States. 1979.