New Developments in Miranda law

Since 1966, the Supreme Court has had to reinterpret Miranda law. Miranda law first was developed in a 1966 case – Arizona v. Miranda – in which the Supreme Court ruled that when a suspect is interrogated in custody, the police must read him his rights. And if he invokes his rights, the police must respect his wishes and halt questioning until either he has an attorney present, or until he decides on his own to speak to police.

Because human beings are human beings, what seems like a simple rule in a law book, is often difficult to put into practice. That’s because sometimes people will invoke their rights – “I want a lawyer!” – but before the lawyer gets there, will start talking again. What do we do with their statements? Or sometimes people will not understand the rights because they have low IQ or don’t speak English. And so on.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has developed more specific rules to handle different aspects of Miranda. For instance, if someone says something out of the blue and not in response to police questioning, it is regarded as a “spontaneous utterance” and therefore is admissible in court.

The most recent question before the court in Berghuis v. Thompkins involved a suspect who was questioned for three hours by police in 2001 about a shooting that had occurred in 2000. That 2000 shooting had led to the death of a boy. Police were convinced they had the right suspect, a man named Thompkins.

Because he was being questioned in custody, they read him his rights: 1) the right to remain silent 2) anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law 3) the right to an attorney 4) if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you by a court.

Unfortunately for Mr. Thompkins, he never said whether he wanted to take advantage of these rights. Instead, he stayed mostly silent for three hours while police questioned him. He gave single word responses from time to time.

At the very end of the questioning, police asked him whether he believed in God and, if so, whether he wanted God to forgive him for what he had done to that boy. Mr. Thompkins said “Yes.” That one word counted as a confession, and was introduced against him at his trial.

He was convicted. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that by his silence. Mr. Thompkins had taken advantage of his Miranda Rights, and that the police questioning was not permissible. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the confession should be suppressed or barred from admission at court.

Today – June 1, 2010 – the Supreme Court ruled on the matter, and in doing so narrowed the scope of Miranda. The Supreme Court ruled that a suspect’s invocation of his rights must be clear and unambiguous. For instance, the suspect must say, “yes, I’d like an attorney” or “I’d like to remain quiet.” If a suspect does that, then police must stop questioning.

But if the suspect is not clear about his refusal to submit to questioning, then the suspect’s statements may later be used against him because they will not be barred by Miranda.

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.