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Thursday, June 3, 2010

SCOTUS Tilts Miranda Warnings Toward Police in Case From Southfield

In January 2000, Van Chester Thompkins of Southfield committed a drive-by style shooting, killing one victim and wounding another.  He was convicted by an Oakland County Jury in May 2002 of first degree murder, assault, and a variety of weapons charges.

The case was initially assigned to now-retired Judge Richard Kuhn and subsequently re-assigned to Judge Michael Warren. Thompkins was represented at trial by West Bloomfield attorney, Lawrence Kaluzny.

From these local beginnings, this case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

Thompkins was apprehended in Columbus, Ohio nearly a year after the shooting and questioned extensively by Southfield PD detectives.  During his custodial interrogation, the suspect refused to answer the detectives' questions for several hours.

Nearly three-hours into the mostly one-way interrogation, the following exchange occurred:

     Detective:  "Do you believe in God?"
     Thompkins:  "Yes."
     Detective:  "Do you pray to God?"
     Thompkins:  "Yes."
     Detective:  "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that poor boy down?"
     Thompkins:  "Yes."

Kaluzny's motion to suppress this statement was denied by the trial judge.  On the basis of this one-word confession, the jury convicted Thompkins, who is doing a life sentence in Coldwater, MI.

The conviction was appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals and affirmed in an unpublished opinion issued in February 2004.  Detroit appellate attorney Elizabeth Jacobs challenged the lower court's rulings on the motions to suppress Thompkins' statement and to suppress defendant's identification by the surviving shooting victim.  Jacobs also raised issues of trial misconduct by the Oakland County Prosecutor, claiming that Kaluzny's failure to raise the issue below rendered Thompkins' legal representation constitutionally deficient.

The intermediate appellate court disposed of Jacobs' argument on the suppression issue with the following ruling:

Defendant argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress his statements to the police. Defendant asserts that the police improperly continued to interrogate him after he “implicitly” invoked his right to remain silent by failing to answer the officers’ questions. We disagree.

The record discloses that defendant was advised of his Miranda rights and, according to the interrogating officer, verbally acknowledged that he understood those rights. Contrary to defendant’s argument, the record does not demonstrate that defendant asserted his right to remain silent. Although defendant refused to sign the advice of rights form, he continued to talk with the officer, albeit sporadically. He answered questions with brief responses, or by nodding his head, but never said he did not want to talk or that he was not going to say anything. “When a defendant speaks after receiving Miranda warnings, a momentary pause or even a failure to answer a question will not be construed as an affirmative invocation by the defendant of a right to remain silent.” The trial court did not clearly err in concluding that defendant voluntarily waived his right to remain silent and that he did not subsequently invoke his right to silence. Defendant’s statements were properly admitted into evidence.

The Michigan Supreme Court declined Defendant's invitation to further review his case.

Once a convicted defendant exhausts all avenues of appeal in a state court, that defendant can avail himself of the federal courts via a petition for habeas corpus.  Thompkins habeas petition was denied in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (in Detroit).

In a remarkable opinion from the United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Thompkins' conviction was reversed.  The federal appellate court was unimpressed with the above analysis from it's Michigan counterpart; inferring that their unpublished opinion was weak on judicial application of significant precedent.  The federal appellate court also believed the state appellate court got the facts of Thompkins' interrogation wrong.

The 6th Circuit relied on the prior and seminal SCOTUS decisions of Miranda v Arizona and North Carolina v Butler, which establish an accused individual's right to remain silent, and imposes a "heavy burden" on the state to demonstrate that a suspect, once advised of this right, has waived his privilege against self-incrimination.

In reversing the 6th Circuit, the SCOTUS held that by answering "yes" to the detective's questions about God, Thompkins gave an "implied" waiver of his rights and further, that from now on, defendants must expressly and unambiguously state their intent to remain silent to their interrogators.  Also, police are no longer required to obtain written waivers executed by a defendant.

The case provides a slight advantage to police interrogators in that they can now continue to question a suspect until he affirmatively asserts his Miranda rights.  In the police interrogation context, many people are simply not inclined to do so thus, our Miranda rights may have less meaning under the hot lights of persistent, aggressive and skillful police interrogation.

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