Some Say Gutted, Some Say Pruned

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog:

More than four decades after the Supreme Court ordered police to warn suspects about their rights before questioning them, the actual day-to-day practice has not turned out to be a simple ritual under clear ground rules.  Encounters in interrogation rooms still and often are a test of wills, with detectives trying to get answers and suspects trying to avoid talking themselves into deeper trouble.  As a result, the Court often has had to reinterpret its 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona.  It did so again on Tuesday, and this time the result decisively tilted the warnings procedure toward the police.

By a 5-4 vote, the Court for the first time made two things clear about Miranda rights: first, if a suspect does not want to talk to police — that is, to invoke a right to silence — he must say so, with a clear statement because it is not enough to sit silently or to remain uncooperative, even through a long session; and, second, if the suspect finally answers a suggestive question with a one-word response that amounts to a confession, that, by itself, will be understood as a waiver of the right to silence and the statement can be used as evidence.  Police need not obtain an explicit waiver of that right. The net practical effect is likely to be that police, in the face of a suspect’s continued silence after being given Miranda warnings, can continue to question him, even for a couple of hours, in hopes eventually of getting him to confess.

Those two declarations emerged in Berghuis v. Thompkins (08-1470), a Michigan drive-by shooting case.  Van Chester Thompkins, Jr., of Southfield, Mich., was convicted of murder, assault, and several firearm charges, and is serving life in prison without parole.  On Tuesday, the Court ruled that his Miranda rights had not been violated, and thus reaffirmed his conviction and sentence.  (In a separate part of the ruling, the Court also rejected a claim that his defense lawyer was ineffective in failing to seek a jury instruction to limit the damaging testimony of another man involved in the crime.)

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by the Court’s four most conservative members, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a strongly-worded dissent, accusing the majority of deciding the case more sweepingly than it needed to do and of carrying out “a substantial retreat from the protection” given by the Miranda decision.

Kent Scheidegger:

The Miranda rule remains intact in that the police must warn suspects of their rights and that an invocation of those rights by the suspect requires the police to stop questioning. Today’s decision involves what is needed to establish whether a suspect invoked or waived his rights.

To invoke the right to remain silent such that the police must stop, the suspect must say so expressly and unambiguously. On the other hand, a waiver of rights may be inferred from the facts that the suspect received the warnings, understood his rights, and responded to questions anyway.

The rule really in the Constitution, forbidding compelled statements, remains in force, of course. Today’s decision places limits on an entirely artificial rule grafted onto the Constitution by the Supreme Court. It is entirely appropriate that artificial rules be strictly limited, if they are not to be abandoned altogether.

Shani O. Hilton at Spencer Ackerman’s place:

In her dissent, Sotomayor wrote that this decision “turns Miranda upside down.” And I admit, that was my first reaction, too.

But how did this case even get to the Supreme Court in the first place? It strikes me as completely laughable that someone can ask that a statement given during an interrogation be thrown out on the grounds that they didn’t talk for the first few minutes of being questioned. It should be as simple as: you have a right to remain silent, so long as you remain silent. That is, if you start talking, you’re no longer exercising that right.

Setting that aside, however, maybe the court’s decision isn’t that terrible. I think my initial reaction was out of worry that suspects may not know that they have to say something. But this ruling has the potential to clear up any ambiguity about the “remaining silent” clause. I was talking to a friend, and he noted that if the Miranda language were modified to include something along the lines of “you have to actively assert your right to remain silent,” it could be okay. Then cops, prosecutors, and suspects are all protected.

Paul Mirengoff at Powerline

Tom Maguire:

The story does include this:

Van Chester Thompkins was arrested for murder in 2001 and interrogated by police for three hours. At the beginning, Thompkins was read his Miranda rights and said he understood.

The officers in the room said Thompkins said little during the interrogation, occasionally answering ”yes,” ”no,” ”I don’t know,” nodding his head and making eye contact as his responses. But when one of the officers asked him if he prayed for forgiveness for ”shooting that boy down,” Thompkins said, ”Yes.”

He was convicted, but on appeal he wanted that statement thrown out because he said he invoked his Miranda rights by being uncommunicative with the interrogating officers.

If the police felt the suspect was not being utterly unresponsive, then one can see why they would continue the interrogation.  Near-silence is not silence.

And I guess there could be a real problem with implementing a rule that equated silence with an assertion of the right to end the interrogation.  Would ten seconds of sullen silence be enough?  One minute?  Ten minutes?  When does the clock start, and who plays scorekeeper?

Scott Lemieux at Tapped:

While this outcome is unsurprising, there are a couple of implications worth noting. First, there was some concern that despite a generally liberal record, Sotomayor might lean excessively toward the state in civil-liberties issues. While today’s case doesn’t in itself prove that these concerns were unfounded — Breyer, the liberal justice most likely to defect on civil-liberties issues, joined her dissent — her strongly worded dissent is, at a minimum, a very encouraging sign.

And second, to return to another of my hobbyhorses, this proves that the much-touted “minimalism” of Alito and Roberts makes very little difference in terms of the bottom-line outcomes of cases. First of all, like Citizens United, this case shows that their minimalism is highly selective; when necessary to reach conservative outcomes Alito and Roberts are perfectly happy to write or join opinions that go well beyond what’s necessary to decide a particular case. And, second, “minimalist” refusals to overturn precedents may mean much less than they seem at first glance. It’s true that Miranda has been re-affirmed, but like a lot of other Warren and early Burger Court precedents, it has also been steadily drained of most of its bite. What matters is not so much whether or not precedents are explicitly overruled; it’s whether they’re actually applied in cases going forward.

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