If you’ve been following our blog for some time, you may have noticed that there are times when certain rights apply, and other times when they do not. At least according to the law. For example, we all have freedom of speech, but that isn’t absolute. You can’t threaten to kill someone. Thus, the same holds true for your right to remain silent. When do you have the right? When don’t you? Today’s case, Berghuis vs. Thompkins (2010) deals with this exact issue.
Berghuis vs. Thompkins: The Facts
First, let’s briefly review the facts of the case. In January of 2000, Mr. Van Chester Thompkins was brought in as a suspect in a murder in Southfield, Michigan. Police officers Mirandized him, however he never explicitly said he was invoking his right to remain silent. After nearly three hours of police interrogation, Mr. Thompkins had kept silent. However, police then asked Mr. Thompkins several religious questions:
- Do you believe in God?
- Do you pray to God?
- Did you pray to God for shooting the victim?
Mr. Thompkins answered “yes” to each of these questions. Taking this as a confession, officers promptly arrested Mr. Thompkins.
Second, how did the U.S. Supreme Court rule in this case? Despite Mr. Thompkins’ claims he had invoked his right to remain silent, and had not waived that right, he faced life imprisonment without parole. The defense appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and they reached a decision in June of 2010.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that a suspect must explicitly invoke their right to remain silent! In other words, simply not speaking DOES NOT mean you’re using your right to remain silent. Justice Kennedy said, “Both [the right to remain silent and the right to counsel] protect… against compulsory self-incrimination… by requiring an interrogation to cease when either right is invoked.” If an accused person explicitly invokes either of these rights, interrogation must stop.
Berghuis vs. Thompkins and You
Third, how is this case not relevant to you? If the police arrest you, you have the right to remain silent, but you have to directly tell them that you will use that right! Once you directly say this, nothing you say can then be used in court unless you waive that right. So, don’t let police trick you! Know your rights!