U.S. Supreme Court narrows Miranda protections

In a series of decisions in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed and refined the scope of the landmark decision Miranda v. Arizona that established important protections for criminal suspects.

On June 1, 2010, the Court issued an opinion in Berghuis v. Thompkins.   New York Times article.

This case did not alter the Miranda requirement that a suspect be told he or she has the right to remain silent.   However, the Court held that statements made by a defendant who received such warning and who did not expressly waive or invoke his or her rights, but who only spoke after remaining silent through hours of interrogations, may be admissible.

In this case, Mr. Thompkins was read his Miranda rights but refused to sign a form acknowledging that he understood them.   He then remained silent through three hours of questioning.   Then, Mr. Thompkins did eventually give a one word answer "yes" to a crucial question:  "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?"   His affirmative answer to this question was used against him at trial and he appealed.  The U.S. Supreme Court held that the statement was admissible and that the burden would be placed on the suspect to invoke his rights.   Essentially, the Court ruled that a suspect who received the Miranda warnings waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police.   New U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor dissented and pointed out the paradox of requiring a suspect to expressly invoke their Miranda right to remain silent by speaking their desire to do so in order to cut off questioning.

The Thompkins case follows two additional decisions in February of 2010 narrowing Miranda protections, Maryland v. Shatzer and Florida v. Powell.   New York Times article.

In the Shatzer case, the Court held that police can take a second run at questioning a suspect who has invoked his Miranda rights, but they must wait until 14 days after the suspect has been released from custody.   In the Powell case, the Court ruled that police may vary the language of the the Miranda warnings and that a warning that a suspect has the right to remain silent and the right to"talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions" was sufficient (as opposed to the standard: "You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.  You have the right to speak to an attorney.  If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.  Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you.")  Each of these opinions may be found in their entirety at the U.S. Supreme Court website.

It is important for a suspect to be aware that they still have the right to remain silent and to consult with an attorney at all times.   But a suspect should expressly state their desire to invoke such rights, not vary from such express statement or behavior, and consult with an attorney as soon as possible.