WASHINGTON (CN) - Lawyers argued before the Supreme Court on Monday whether a suspect waived his Miranda rights by admitting he had prayed to God to forgive him for murder. Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the state lawyer's argument, saying, "Your position is the moment that someone confesses, that's an implicit waiver."
In 2001, Van Chester Thompkins of Michigan was arrested on suspicion of murder and read his rights to remain silent and to consult an attorney; then he was interrogated. After 2hours and 15 minutes of mostly silence, Thompkins admitted that he had prayed to God to forgive him for the murder.
The question turns on whether the admission can be used in court or whether his failure to waive his Miranda rights made the statement inadmissible.
Michigan Solicitor General Eric Restuccia argued that Thompkins implied he had waived his rights when he responded knowingly and voluntarily to the question after acknowledging but not invoking his rights.
"When he answers questions knowing that he doesn't have to answer, that is the waiver," Restuccia said.
Sotomayor, who seemed most critical of the state's arguments, was quick to reply. "So what do we do with our case law that says that you can't infer waiver simply from the confession?" she asked.
The Michigan lawyer responded by pointing to the Supreme Court's 1979 decision in North Carolina v. Butler that the waiving of Miranda rights can be implied from the actions and words of the interrogated, instead of from explicit statements.
But Sotomayor appeared unfazed. "You want to change the Miranda rule to say: `Tell someone their rights and unless they explicitly say 'I don't want to talk to you,' then they implicitly, under virtually any circumstance, haven't'?" she said.
Justice Stephen Breyer also criticized the state's side, asking, "Would you say that at some point before the 2 hours and 15 minutes expires, where they're continuously asking him questions and he says nothing, that it has become clear that he has not waived his right?"
Breyer answered his own question. "It's clear that he hadn't waived his right," he said.
Elizabeth Jacobs represented Thompkins and argued that his short answers and lack of eye contact showed he did not want to cooperate with police. She said police should ask suspects whether they want to waive their rights, and silence or a "no" response should mean the rights are not waived and that the interrogation cannot proceed.
She pointed to the Supreme Court's 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, that prosecutors have a heavy burden to demonstrate that a defendant "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently" waived his rights, and that silence does not constitute a waiver.
Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to favor the state's side. "I'm not sure you are doing defendants a great favor," he told Thompkins' lawyer. "If I were there, even if I didn't want to talk right now, I might still want to listen, which is apparently what this person did."
Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that it would be difficult to draw a clear line between the normal seconds that lapse when two people are talking, and an expressed silence that means the suspect does not want to cooperate.
Scalia made a helpful proposition to Michigan's lawyer. "Why shouldn't we have a rule which simply says if you don't want to be interrogated, all you have to say is, 'I don't want to answer your questions?'" he asked, then turned to the specific case with Thompkins. "He in fact submitted to having these questions asked of him," Scalia said.
But in the suspect's defense, Breyer quickly cut into the state lawyer's approving response. "What would you do with Miranda's statement, 'But a valid waiver will not be presumed simply from the silence of the accused?'" he asked.
The district court ruled that Thompkins' confession could be used in court, but the 6th Circuit reversed.
The Obama administration joined Michigan in arguing that Thompkins had waived his rights.