Berghuis v. Thompkins

130 S. Ct. 2250 (2010)

(The “Largely Silent” During Interrogation Case)

 

Context

As established in Miranda v Arizona, a citizen arrested and taken into custody by the police is afforded certain rights, and they must be made aware of those rights and confirm that they understand the rights afforded to them. In January 2000, Van Chester Thompkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder, and firearms-related charges. After his arrest, Thompkins barely spoke to or made eye contact with the officers and refused to sign an acknowledgement that he had been informed of his Miranda rights. During questioning Thompkins did not sign a written confession but responded verbally to yes-no questions about the murder, which officers took as a confession. Thompkins, however, believed that he had invoked his right to silence since he had not explicitly waived it, and therefore the confession he made was involuntary and inadmissible. The Michigan State Court of Appeals rejected his claim. So Thompkins petitioned Michigan district court for habeas corpus relief but was again denied. When the case reached the Sixth Circuit court, however, the court upheld the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling that Thompkins could not reasonably be said to have waived his Fifth Amendment rights, and that Thompkins had in fact been prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to request a limiting instruction related to his separately tried co-defendant’s testimony. Upon reaching the Supreme Court, the Justices were asked to consider whether the Sixth Circuit had improperly expanded the Miranda rule in holding that Thompkins’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated, and whether the Sixth Circuit failed to give deference to the state court when granting habeas corpus relief with respect to Thompkins’s ineffective counsel argument even though there had been significant evidence of Thompkins’s guilt. The state argued that remaining silent is not the same as actively asserting one’s right to silence. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Thompkins had not invoked his rights to silence and counsel because he failed to do so unambiguously, and that he could not show that he was prejudiced by his counsel’s poor performance. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Berghuis v Thompkins established that simply remaining silent after hearing one’s Miranda rights without explicitly asserting that one does not wish to talk to the police may not constitute an invocation of one’s Miranda rights. This ruling has been described as undermining and even gutting the rights afforded by the Miranda decision. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor said that in this case the Court was ruling in favor of suppressing individuals’ constitutional rights without satisfying the high standard of proof required to do so under the decision in Johnson v Zerbst.

Berghuis v. Thompkins


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Kennedy, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito

Dissent: Sotomayor, joined by Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer

Facts:

A shooting occurred outside a mall. Thompkins, who was a suspect, fled. About one year later he was found in Ohio and arrested there.

Two Southfield police officers traveled to Ohio to interrogate Thompkins. The interrogation lasted about three hours. The interrogation was conducted in a room that was 8 by 10 feet, and Thompkins sat in a chair that resembled a school desk. At the beginning of the interrogation, one of the officers read the Miranda rights from a form and then had Thompkins reread "You have the right to decide at any time before or during questioning to use your right to remain silent and your right to talk with a lawyer while you are being questioned.” Thompkins complied. Helgert later said this was to ensure that Thompkins could read, and Helgert concluded that Thompkins understood English and asked Thompkins to sign the form to demonstrate that he understood his rights. Thompkins declined to sign the form. The record contains conflicting evidence about whether Thompkins then verbally confirmed that he understood the rights listed on the form.

At no point during the interrogation did Thompkins say that he wanted to remain silent, that he did not want to talk with the police, or that he wanted an attorney. Thompkins was “[l]argely” silent during the interrogation, which lasted about three hours. He did give a few limited verbal responses, however, such as “yeah,” “no,” or “I don't know.” And on occasion he communicated by nodding his head. Thompkins also said that he “didn't want a peppermint” that was offered to him by the police and that the chair he was “sitting in was hard.”

About 2 hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, Helgert asked Thompkins, “Do you believe in God?” Thompkins made eye contact with Helgert and said “Yes,” as his eyes “well[ed] up with tears.” Helgert asked, “Do you pray to God?” Thompkins said “Yes.” Helgert asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” Thompkins answered “Yes” and looked away. Thompkins refused to make a written confession, and the interrogation ended about 15 minutes later.

Question:

Whether Thompkins waived his right to remain silent.

Reasoning:

If an accused makes a statement concerning the right to counsel “that is ambiguous or equivocal” or makes no statement, the police are not required to end the interrogation, or ask questions to clarify whether the accused wants to invoke his or her Miranda rights.

A requirement of an unambiguous invocation of Miranda rights results in an objective inquiry that “avoid[s] difficulties of proof and . . . provide[s] guidance to officers” on how to proceed in the face of ambiguity. Suppression of a voluntary confession in these circumstances would place a significant burden on society's interest in prosecuting criminal activity.

Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk with the police. Had he made either of these simple, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his “right to cut off questioning.”

The waiver inquiry “has two distinct dimensions”: waiver must be “voluntary in the sense that it was the product of a free and deliberate choice rather than intimidation, coercion, or deception,” and “made with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it.”

The prosecution therefore does not need to show that a waiver of Miranda rights was express. An “implicit waiver” of the “right to remain silent” is sufficient to admit a suspect's statement into evidence.

Where the prosecution shows that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, an accused's uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver of the right to remain silent.

As a general proposition, the law can presume that an individual who, with a full understanding of his or her rights, acts in a manner inconsistent with their exercise has made a deliberate choice to relinquish the protection those rights afford.

The record in this case shows that Thompkins waived his right to remain silent. There is no basis in this case to conclude that he did not understand his rights; and on these facts it follows that he chose not to invoke or rely on those rights when he did speak. First, there is no contention that Thompkins did not understand his rights; and from this it follows that he knew what he gave up when he spoke.

Second, Thompkins' answer to Detective Helgert's question about whether Thompkins prayed to God for forgiveness for shooting the victim is a “course of conduct indicating waiver” of the right to remain silent. If Thompkins wanted to remain silent, he could have said nothing in response to Helgert's questions, or he could have unambiguously invoked his Miranda rights and ended the interrogation. Police are not required to rewarn suspects from time to time. Thompkins' answer to Helgert's question about praying to God for forgiveness for shooting the victim was sufficient to show a course of conduct indicating waiver. This is confirmed by the fact that before then Thompkins had given sporadic answers to questions throughout the interrogation.

Third, there is no evidence that Thompkins' statement was coerced. There is no authority for the proposition that an interrogation of this length is inherently coercive. The fact that Helgert's question referred to Thompkins' religious beliefs also did not render Thompkins's statement involuntary. “[T]he Fifth Amendment privilege is not concerned 'with moral and psychological pressures to confess emanating from sources other than official coercion.'

The Miranda rule and its requirements are met if a suspect receives adequate Miranda warnings, understands them, and has an opportunity to invoke the rights before giving any answers or admissions. Any waiver, express or implied, may be contradicted by an invocation at any time. If the right to counsel or the right to remain silent is invoked at any point during questioning, further interrogation must cease.

Holding:

The state court's decision rejecting Thompkins' Miranda claim was correct under de novo review.

 

Key Takeaway

Unless a suspect in custody expressly invokes his rights (either in speaking or in writing), police may question him. If he then goes on to make an incriminating statement, even after being mostly silent for almost three hours, the statement is admissible. Being mostly silent for long periods of time is different from invoking a right to remain silent. The course of conduct of speaking even after knowing of one's right to remain silence suggests the suspect willingly waives his right.


Court Syllabus

After advising respondent Thompkins of his rights, in full compliance with Miranda v. Arizona, Detective Helgert and another Michigan officer interrogated him about a shooting in which one victim died. At no point did Thompkins say that he wanted to remain silent, that he did not want to talk with the police, or that he wanted an attorney. He was largely silent during the 3-hour interrogation, but near the end, he answered “yes” when asked if he prayed to God to forgive him for the shooting. He moved to suppress his statements, claiming that he had invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, that he had not waived that right, and that his inculpatory statements were involuntary. The trial court denied the motion. At trial on first-degree murder and other charges, the prosecution called Eric Purifoy, who drove the van in which Thompkins and a third accomplice were riding at the time of the shooting, and who had been convicted of firearm offenses but acquitted of murder and assault. Thompkins' defense was that Purifoy was the shooter. Purifoy testified that he did not see who fired the shots. During closing arguments, the prosecution suggested that Purifoy lied about not seeing the shooter and pondered whether Purifoy's jury had made the right decision. Defense counsel did not ask the court to instruct the jury that it could consider evidence of the outcome of Purifoy's trial only to assess his credibility, not to establish Thompkins' guilt. The jury found Thompkins guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In denying his motion for a new trial, the trial court rejected as nonprejudicial his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim for failure to request a limiting instruction about the outcome of Purifoy's trial. On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected both Thompkins' Miranda and his ineffective-assistance claims. The Federal District Court denied his subsequent habeas request, reasoning that Thompkins did not invoke his right to remain silent and was not coerced into making statements during the interrogation, and that it was not unreasonable, for purposes of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), for the State Court of Appeals to determine that he had waived his right to remain silent. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the state court was unreasonable in finding an implied waiver of Thompkins' right to remain silent and in rejecting his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.

Held:

1. The state court's decision rejecting Thompkins' Miranda claim was correct under de novo review and therefore necessarily reasonable under AEDPA's more deferential standard of review. 

(a) Thompkins' silence during the interrogation did not invoke his right to remain silent. A suspect's Miranda right to counsel must be invoked “unambiguously.” If the accused makes an “ambiguous or equivocal” statement or no statement, the police are not required to end the interrogation or ask questions to clarify the accused's intent. There is no principled reason to adopt different standards for determining when an accused has invoked the Miranda right to remain silent and the Miranda right to counsel at issue in Davis. Both protect the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination by requiring an interrogation to cease when either right is invoked. The unambiguous invocation requirement results in an objective inquiry that “avoid[s] difficulties of proof and . . . provide[s] guidance to officers” on how to proceed in the face of ambiguity. Had Thompkins said that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk, he would have invoked his right to end the questioning. He did neither.

(b) Thompkins waived his right to remain silent when he knowingly and voluntarily made a statement to police. A waiver must be “the product of a free and deliberate choice rather than intimidation, coercion, or deception” and “made with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it.” Such a waiver may be “implied” through a “defendant's silence, coupled with an understanding of his rights and a course of conduct indicating waiver.” If the State establishes that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood by the accused, an accused's uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver. The record here shows that Thompkins waived his right to remain silent. First, the lack of any contention that he did not understand his rights indicates that he knew what he gave up when he spoke. Second, his answer to the question about God is a “course of conduct indicating waiver” of that right. Had he wanted to remain silent, he could have said nothing in response or unambiguously invoked his Miranda rights, ending the interrogation. That he made a statement nearly three hours after receiving a Miranda warning does not overcome the fact that he engaged in a course of conduct indicating waiver. Third, there is no evidence that his statement was coerced. He does not claim that police threatened or injured him or that he was fearful. The interrogation took place in a standard-sized room in the middle of the day, and there is no authority for the proposition that a 3-hour interrogation is inherently coercive. The fact that the question referred to religious beliefs also does not render his statement involuntary. 

(c) Thompkins argues that, even if his answer to Helgert could constitute a waiver of his right to remain silent, the police were not allowed to question him until they first obtained a waiver. However, a rule requiring a waiver at the outset would be inconsistent with Butler's holding that courts can infer a waiver “from the actions and words of the person interrogated.” Any waiver, express or implied, may be contradicted by an invocation at any time, terminating further interrogation. When the suspect knows that Miranda rights can be invoked at any time, he or she can reassess his or her immediate and long-term interests as the interrogation progresses. After giving a Miranda warning, police may interrogate a suspect who has neither invoked nor waived Miranda rights. Thus, the police were not required to obtain a waiver of Thompkins' Miranda rights before interrogating him.

2. Even if his counsel provided ineffective assistance, Thompkins cannot show prejudice under a de novo review of this record. To establish ineffective assistance, a defendant “must show both deficient performance . . . and prejudice.” To establish prejudice, a “defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” Strickland v. Washington, considering “the totality of the evidence before the judge or jury.” Here, the Sixth Circuit did not account for the other evidence presented against Thompkins. The state court rejected his claim that he was prejudiced by evidence of Purifoy's earlier conviction. Even if it used an incorrect legal standard, this Court need not determine whether AEDPA's deferential standard of review applies here, since Thompkins cannot show prejudice under de novo review, a more favorable standard for him. De novo review can be used in this case because a habeas petitioner will not be entitled to relief if his or her claim is rejected on de novo review. Assuming that failure to request a limiting instruction here was deficient representation, Thompkins cannot show prejudice, for the record shows that it was not reasonably likely that such an instruction would have made any difference in light of other evidence of guilt. The surviving victim identified Thompkins as the shooter, and the identification was supported by a surveillance camera photograph. A friend testified that Thompkins confessed to him, and the details of that confession were corroborated by evidence that Thompkins stripped and abandoned the van after the shooting. The jury, moreover, was capable of assessing Purifoy's credibility, as it was instructed to do.