By Frank James
Anyone who's seen even one episode of a TV crime drama knows the drill. After an arrest, sometimes even during the arrest, the police give the suspect the famous Miranda warning: You have the right to remain silent etc.
Real life is more complicated, of course. In some jurisdictions, the police may take someone into custody without officially arresting him, allowing them to question a suspect before reading giving a Miranda warning.
Sometimes, suspects remain tight lipped, refusing to cooperate at all.
But if that criminal suspect wants to either invoke his right to be silent under Miranda, that suspect needs to clearly tell the police as much, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a 5-4 vote that pitted the court's conservatives against its liberals.
What's more, if a suspect answers a police interrogator's question with even a one-word response that implicates him, that answer can be properly viewed as the suspect waiving his Miranda rights.
The decision in the case Berghius, Warden v. Thompkins clearly shifted the Miranda balance in favor of police.
The case was filed by lawyers for Van Chester Thompkins who was convicted of first degree murder in a drive-by shooting that occurred in on Jan. 10, 2000 outside a Southfield, Mich. mall.
After being found in Ohio about a year after the shooting, Thompkins was questioned by police for nearly three hours after being not only advised of his Miranda rights but given a printed copy of them to read.
Thompkins refused to sign the paper and also didn't orally indicate whether he was waiving or invoking his Miranda rights.
Towards the end of an interrogation in which Thompkins mostly said nothing, one of the interrogators asked him if he prayed to God to which he answered "Yes."
Then the officer asked: "Do you pray to God to ask for forgiveness for shooting that boy down?"
Thompkins again answered "yes."
Later, he claimed the fact that he was mostly silent during his interrogation should have been read as his invoking his right to remain silent and that his affirmative answer to the question of whether he prayed for forgiveness was coerced out of him after he had invoked his right against self incrimination.
Michigan's highest court and a federal district court sided with prosecutors. But the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Thompkin's favor. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling.
An excerpt from the court's decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy:
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 anuncoerced statement to the police. Thompkins did not invoke his right to remain silent and stop the questioning. Understanding his rights in full, he waived his right to remain silent by making a voluntary statement to the police. The police, moreover, were not required to obtain a waiver of Thompkins's right to remain silent before inter-rogating him.