Monday, June 7, 2010

Suspects must speak to protect their rights, Supreme Court says

Supreme Court ruled recently that people must clearly speak their intent about remaining silent during an integration or the police will be allowed to presume that they can proceed. This seems like a sensible decision.


In a case out of Michigan, Berghuis v. Thompkins, No. 08-1470, Van Chester Thompkins was arrested as a suspect of a murder in Southfield in 2000. After being advised of his rights to remain silent under the court’s rules of the Miranda Warning, the police asked him if he understood his rights. They also asked Thompkins to sign a statement that clearly stated that he understood his rights. Since Thompkins did not say he wished to remain silent nor did he sign the statement, the police continued with their questioning. After almost three hours of integration Thompkins was asked three questions that he answered. He said “Yes”, to one of the questions, which was, “Does he pray to God that he will forgive him for the killing”.

That statement was used in court against him. He was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. He later argued that he intended to remain silent, therefore, the police should have stopped the questioning. Thompkins argues, therefore, that the answer to the question if he wanted God to forgive him for the murder should not have been used in his trial. (This assumes, of course, that it was the most incriminating evidence against him and that all other evidence was inconclusive without this statement.)

The Miranda Warning does have many variants. The Supreme Court didn’t suggest a specific wording. But it did say, as of interest to this case, “prior to interrogation, [the suspect must] be clearly informed that he or she has the right to remain silent”, and “the person must be clearly informed”. The defense didn’t contest that he wasn’t informed before the integration nor that he wasn’t clearly informed, only that he remained silent. Just because he didn’t say anything, didn’t mean the officers were to interpret it as meaning he wanted to remain silent. As a matter of fact, when he answered the questions, it was clear that he wanted to talk.

In this situation, suspects must clearly state their intentions. This is a sensible decision that should be supported by the community.

Of course, there are exceptions that hopefully will be worked out in practice. Police and others can’t assume that someone understands English enough to comprehend what is required of them. The suspects also can’t be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, recreational or prescription. Also, if the suspect is from another country or if his lawyer gives him bad advice about speaking to police, the suspect must be given the benefit of doubt about his understanding of the protections in the United States.

The United States has a very well regulated police force that rarely gets out of control. They also have well established legal rights that every individual is aware of if they have spent a reasonable amount of time in country. The police have a tough job to do and should be granted some room to do that job.

Given this situation, individuals must take responsibility for acting on these rights when confronted by authorities.

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