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The Florida Bar

Supreme Court on the Right to Remain Silent, Part II

As previously addressed, United States Supreme Court ruled that Van Chester Thompkins’ confession to Michigan police was admissible against him at trial even though he sat silently for nearly three hours during police interrogation prior to his coercion, which some defense observers thought was coerced, according to Broward criminal attorney Moore. The Court held that merely being silent did not unambiguously invoke the Defendant’s right to remain silent, which is protected under the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution and in the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona.

Under the 5th Amendment, criminal suspects have the right to remain silent during police interrogation, a particularly important right according to Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer Moore. Specifically, the 5th amendment states that no person shall be compelled to be a witness against themselves in a criminal trial. The United States Supreme Court has held that prosecutors may not even comment on a suspect’s decision to remain silent or ask a jury to draw a negative inference from a suspect’s decision to remain silent. In Miranda v. Arizona the Supreme Court created a rule designed to protect criminal suspects from making coerced into making statements to the police during an interrogation. According to Miranda, suspects must be warned of their right to remain silent whenever they are in custody and interrogation by police before any of the suspect’s statements can be used against him at trial. Once a criminal suspect is given his Miranda warnings he may then decide whether to invoke their right to remain silent by not answering any questions or waive their Miranda right by speaking with the police. One issue that the Miranda case did not address was what exactly must a suspect do to invoke his right to remain silent.

The Thompkins case presented an interesting question to the courts: does sitting silently without answering any questions mean that a suspect has invoked his right to remain silent? If so, should the state be allowed to use subsequent incriminating statements against the defendant at trial? The state of Michigan argued to the U.S. Supreme Court in its petition that although a suspect may passively convey to officers that they are invoking their right to remain silent by not answering questions, only an unambiguous invocation of the right to remain silent, such as a statement the suspect wants to terminate the interview, would let a reasonable police officer know that the suspect wants all questioning to stop. In its brief the State of Michigan argued that:

“A suspect may want to listen to a recitation of the evidence against him or learn about the benefits of cooperation before deciding whether to exercise his rights. Or a suspect may be formulating an explanation of events that lessens his culpability, planning an alibi, or thinking through his options. Or he may be willing to talk about some topics but not others… Simply presuming an invocation after some initial period of silence… would override the wishes of those suspects who wanted to listen and deliberate further, rather than to end questioning.”

A majority of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the reasoning of the state of Michigan. They held that only an unambiguous statement of a suspect that he wanted to invoke his right to remain silent and end all question could adequately inform police officers that the suspect wanted all interrogation to end. They compared the defendant’s situation to previous cases involving a suspect’s request to speak with a lawyer before answering police questions. In those cases the Supreme Court had held that only a clear and unambiguous statement by a defendant that he wanted a lawyer would require police to stop their interrogation, a position not all criminal defense attorneys would agree with.

A four justice minority disagreed with the majority’s reasoning. In a dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, they stated that it was counterintuitive to require to require suspects to speak in order to invoke their right to remain silent and that the state of Michigan did not present enough evidence to overcome the high burden of proof required by Miranda to show that Thompkins knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived his right to remain silent.

Legal commentators are split on the merits of the Supreme court’s decision in this case. Scholars who have supported the decision have stated that it helps create clear guidelines for police officers about when they must intend interrogation of a criminal suspect. Scholars more sympathetic to the dissenters have stated that the decision does not take into account the concerns of the Supreme Court in Miranda about the pressures of custodial interrogation of criminal suspects.

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