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United States Supreme Court limits Miranda in the case of Berghuis v. Thompkins

The United States Supreme Court further limited the holding of its landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona in the case of Berghuis v. Thompkins decided on June 2nd.

In Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court held that police must advise a defendant of the defendant’s right to remain silent, right to attorney and the fact that statements could be used against the defendant prior to any custodial interrogation. In Thompkins’ case, the police began to interrogate the defendant about a shooting. The Michigan police read the defendant his Miranda rights from a preprinted form. Most police departments in Massachusetts also use preprinted forms to advise a defendant of their rights. The defendant refused to sign the form and was asked to read one of the rights by the police officer. During the interrogation, the defendant was silent throughout most of the 2 hour and 45 minute interrogation. The defendant was asked by the officer if he prayed for the victim and asked for God’s forgiveness for shooting that boy down. The defendant replied that he did. His confession was used against him at his trial, resulting in his conviction on the charges.

The defendant argued that his silence during most of the interrogation acted as an invocation of his right to remain silent and that the police should have stopped questioning him when he did not respond. The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning holding that a defendant must unequivocally invoke his right to remain silent.

The defendant next attacked the waiver of his right to remain silent by arguing that waiver of his rights under Miranda was not knowing, intelligent and voluntary. The majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy indicating that Miranda should not be interpreted to hold that a waiver of Miranda is difficult to establish absent a written or formal waiver. The Court held that there is no formalistic process that the State has to demonstrate to prove that a defendant waived Miranda rights other than that the accused made an uncoerced statement and understood his rights.

The Court found that Thompkins waived his rights under Miranda and understood those rights. Significantly, the court held that the fact that almost three hours passed from the time of the Miranda warnings to the incriminating statement did not mean that the statement should be suppressed. Further, the court held that the fact that the police appealed to religion did not make the confession coerced as the court held that the Fifth Amendment is not concerned with moral and psychological pressures to confess emanating from sources other than official coercion.
In a dissenting opinion, written by new Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor and joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer, the dissent argues that the court’s decision represents a substantial retreat from the Constitutional protections recognized in Miranda.

The dissent argued that the State did not satisfy the heavy burden of showing that the defendant waived his right to remain silent. Additionally, the dissent would hold that a defendant that continuously remains silent invokes their Fifth Amendment rights and their actions cannot be interpreted in any way other than indicating a refusal to speak to the police.

Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer faced with issues of custodial interrogation will still attempt to distinguish the Berghuis decision to move the court toward providing greater protections under the Fifth Amendment and to avoid unreliable confessions. Additionally, Massachusetts criminal attorneys can also argue that the Massachusetts courts should provide greater protections to Constitutional rights under the State Constitution, the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

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