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Supreme Court rules that while “silence may be golden”, it doesn’t stop police interrogation

On June 1,2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Warden v. Thompson, case no. 08-1470, which, in a 5-4 decision, stated that in order for a suspect to assert his right to remain silent and right to counsel, he must “unambiguously” invoke those rights prior to,or during police interrogation.

In that case, Thompson was read his Miranda rights during the a murder investigation in which he was a suspect. During a 3 hour interrogation, he never stated that  he did not want to speak with police nor wanted to speak with an attorney. His reponses to police questions during that 3 hour period were mostly limited to one word “yes” or “no” answers or nods of his head. Towards the end of the questioning, when asked if he “prayed that God would forgive him for the murder” he answered “yes”.

That statement was thereafter admitted at his trial where he was convicted and received a life sentence. On appeal, the Federal District Court agreed that the statement was admissible and an appeal was therafter filed with the U.S.Supreme Court.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated that the requirement that a suspect unequivocally verbalize his intent to assert his 5th Amendment right to remain silent and/or 6th Amendment right to counsel was necessary to provide clear guidance to police officers on how to proceed after Miranda rights have been read to a suspect. In effect, a suspect only has to say a few “magic words” ( ‘silent’ and ‘attorney’ ) to halt any further police contact. This does not seem to be too much to ask..

Justice Sotomayor, writing for the dissenters, stated that this ruling, in effect, “turns Miranda upside down”. She quoted previous cases since Miranda v. Arizona  which had imposed a “heavy burden” upon the police to prove that a suspect had waived his Miranda rights.

Since “Dragnet” and “Law and Order”, everyone should be well aware of their constitutional rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present during police questioning. By merely requiring a person to verbalize that they want to assert either or both rights to the police does not appear too much to ask and should eliminate those circumstances where the suspect is being coy when confronted by police questioning.

In my criminal practice, I routinely advise my clients to tell the officer that they want to talk with me prior to any further questioning. As referred to in the “Arrested” information page of my website, I stress that the proper place to speak with police is with me present in a comfortable environment – not alone and scared, by the side of the road in the middle of the night.

This ruling by the Supreme Court should provide ample reinforcement to my standing advice.

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