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U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS: Suspects Must Speak to Invoke Right to Silence

Posted Jun 1, 2010 10:08 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an inmate’s claim that his “persistent silence” for nearly three hours of police questioning indicated he had refused to waive his Miranda rights.

A suspect who wants to invoke his right to remain silent must do so unambiguously, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion (PDF). The court ruled against Van Chester Thompkins, who said little during a police murder interrogation until an officer asked whether he prayed for forgiveness for "shooting that boy down." Thompkins responded, "Yes."

Kennedy said a decision requiring police to second-guess a suspect's Miranda intent could be a significant burden. “If an ambiguous act, omission, or statement could require police to end the interrogation, police would be required to make difficult decisions about an accused’s unclear intent and face the consequence of suppression 'if they guess wrong,' ” Kennedy wrote. “Suppression of a voluntary confession in these circumstances would place a significant burden on society’s interest in prosecuting criminal activity.”

The dissent, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, called the majority opinion a “substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination.” She also criticized the majority for deciding the question, saying the case could have been decided more narrowly based on the deferential standard of review of state court rulings in habeas cases.

Additional Coverage:

Associated Press: “Court: Suspects must say they want to be silent”

Headline updated at 2 p.m. to clarify that silence isn't an automatic invocation of Miranda rights.

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