The U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, wisely ruled this week that suspects must tell police they are going to remain quiet in order to stop an interrogation, just as they must tell police they want a lawyer.
Frankly, we are surprised this wasn't a more lopsided ruling. The decision appears to be rooted in common sense.
In the case, murder suspect Van Chester Thompkins was informed of his Miranda rights, including the right to remain silent. Police continued questioning for three hours and Thompkins answered many questions, albeit with mostly one word answers. He eventually implicated himself in the killing in Southfield, Mich. The evidence was used to convict him.
Thompkins appealed, saying he had invoked his Miranda right to remain silent by remaining silent.
We believe the right against self incrimination is an important one. It prevents authorities from coercing a confession using either physical or psychological tactics. The right to remain silent protects the innocent from being abused.
We would have sided with Thompkins had police not informed him of his Miranda rights and made an effort to discern whether he understood his rights.
Police did make the effort. Thompkins opted to not respond to questions regarding Miranda rights.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that silence alone isn't enough to notify police that their interrogation must stop.
"Thompkins did not say that he wanted to remain silent or that he did not want to talk to police," Kennedy said.
"Had he made either of these simple, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his 'right to cut off questioning.' Here he did neither, so he did not invoke his right to remain silent."
Kennedy added that people who have been informed of their rights and act "in a manner inconsistent with their exercise" might be presumed to have waived their rights, meaning that responding to police questioning is itself an implied waiver of the right to remain silent.
This ruling does not trample on the rights of the accused, it simply brings some clarity to an often cloudy process. Miranda rights remain intact, but police no longer have to guess whether suspects have waived or invoked those rights. Suspects must now make it clear with a simple declaration they wish to remain silent.