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The Florida Bar

Supreme Court Ruling on Right to Remain Silent — Part I

In a 5-4 decision released this past June, the Supreme Court limited the scope of its prior holding in Miranda v. Arizona and held that a criminal suspect’s incriminating statements, made after nearly three hours of silence during police questioning, could be used against him at trial, says Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer Moore. At issue was whether the suspect’s silence while being questioned by police was, by itself, an invocation of his right to remain silent under the 5th amendment and whether his response to police interrogation made after this lengthy period of silence should have been suppressed. The Court held that because the defendant had never explicitly invoked his right to remain silent — orally, for example — his incriminating statements made to police interrogators were admissible against him.

The case concerned defendant Van Chester Thompkins, who was accused of shooting another man outside of a shopping mall in Michigan. Police investigators considered Thompkins a suspect in the shooting and brought him in for questioning nearly a year after the shootings had occurred. Prior to questioning Thompkins, the police read him his Miranda warnings, informing him that he had the right to remain silent during interrogation, that anything he said could be used against him in court, that he had the right to an attorney and that one could be provided to him free of charge if he could not afford one. After reading Thompkins his Miranda rights, police officials did not ask him if he formally wanted to waive his rights, but instead began asking him about the shooting. Thompkins was unresponsive for nearly two hours and forty-five minutes of questioning about the incident, says Broward criminal lawyer Moore. He only broke his silence during the interrogation to state that his chair was hard and that he did not want a peppermint that the officers offered him. Police eventually changed course and asked Mr. Thompkins religiously themed questions designed to try to appeal to his belief in God. They asked Thompkins 1) if he believed in God, 2) if he prayed to God and 3) if he prayed to God for shooting the victim. Thompkins answered yes to all three questions. The answer to the third question was used against him at trial after the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the statement because he had invoked his right to remain silent by not answering the officers’ questions during the previous part of the interrogation. The issue was then appealed to the Michigan state courts and eventually to the federal courts with the United States Supreme Court ultimately deciding that the statement was admissible at trial and was not a violation of Miranda. In part two of this article we will discuss what kinds of statements are protected under Miranda v. Arizona and why the Supreme Court decided that the defendant’s statement was admissible against him at his criminal trial.

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