US Supreme Court relaxes strict interpretation of self incrimination ruling

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In a 5–4 decision on Tuesday, the US Supreme Court ruled that once a suspect of a criminal investigation is informed of his right to remain silent, he must specifically invoke that right if he does not want his words to be used against him. 

Current composition of the US Supreme Court.
Image: Steve Petteway, US Supreme Court staff photographer.

The case involved a fatal shooting in 2000 in Michigan committed by Van Chester Thompkins. Before questioning, he was informed of his rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to consult an attorney, but Thompkins did not tell the officer he wished to invoke those rights. During questioning, the suspect gave few, limited responses. After about two hours and forty-five minutes, however, the interrogator asked "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?" Thompkins replied "yes". Even though he refused to sign a confession, that one-word statement was used against him in trial, and Thompkins was convicted of first-degree murder. 

The conviction was upheld by Michigan state courts and a federal district court, but was overturned by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court disagreed and subsequently reinstated the conviction. 

In the case, designated Berghuis v. Thompkins, the high court's conservative majority observed that since he was already informed of his rights, the defendant waived those rights when he voluntarily made an incriminating statement during interrogation. The majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.

The court's decision continues a recent trend of siding with the police and restricting the rights of criminal suspects. In her dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the decision is a step back from protections against forced self incrimination as provided for in the landmark 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona. She was joined by the court's other three liberal associate justices: John Paul Stevens, Steven Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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