You Be the Judge.

August 1, 2010

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You be the Judge.  Here are the facts Your Honor.  Defendant was arrested for a major felony crime and given his Miranda Rights as prescribed by Miranda v. Arizona.  While in the custody of police and in the police station, Defendant was questioned for over 2 hours while saying little or nothing.  However, he never asked for an attorney, told the police he did not want to speak, nor told the police he wished to remain silent.  Police questioned him without any response until he answered “Yes” to one question: “Have you prayed to God to forgive you for shooting the victim?”

Defendant moved to have his answer suppressed by claiming he had invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and he had not waived that right and the statement was involuntary.  The state trial court denied the motion and Defendant was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without parole.  On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the life without parole sentence.  Upon further appeal, the Federal District court denied his subsequent request for relief, reasoning he did not invoke his right to remain silent and was not coerced during interrogation.  Another appeal to the US Sixth Circuit resulted in a reversal, holding the state court was unreasonable in finding an implied waiver of right to remain silent.

You be the judge.  Do you think this defendant by not talking or talking very little gave the police permission to use his answer of “Yes” when asked “if he prayed to God for forgiveness for shooting the victim?” and then to use his answer against him to convict him of murder?  What are your reasons for your answer Judge?

This case eventually went to the US Supreme Court where they reversed the Sixth Circuit and held the state court was correct and reasonable.  They also said the Defendant’s 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.  Had the Defendant said that he wanted to remain silent or he did not want to talk would have invoked his right to end the questioning, he did neither.

Defendant waived his right to remain silent when he knowingly and voluntarily made a statement to police, the “Yes” answer he gave to the forgiveness question.  If the State can show that a Miranda warning was given and that it was understood, then the accused’s uncoerced statement establishes an implied waiver.  The record shows the Defendant waived his right to remain silent. His answer about God is a “course of conduct indication waiver” of that right.  Had he wanted to remain silent, he could have said nothing in response to the question.  Additionally, his statement was not coerced.  He does not claim the police threatened or injured him or that he was fearful.  The interrogation took place in the middle of the day in a standard police interrogation room and there is no authority for the idea that a 3-hour interrogation in inherently coercive.  Held:  Berghuis v. Thompkins is Reversed and Remanded.

How in the world can this case affect your life on the road?  One simple way is a fatal accident where you and the big truck you are driving are involved.  Or you are arrested for a hit-and-run accident.  Maybe you are arrested for assault at a truck-stop where you thought you just had a disagreement.  There are just a few of the ways this reduction in Miranda rights may affect you.

Should you ever be involved in an accident, the first thing you should do is call your company and report it and let them call the cops and medical folks while you go check on the injured or shook up people involved in the accident.  If you know immediately of a death from that accident you must let your company know as soon as possible, but you also should make a call to your attorney to seek legal advice.  Cops will not wait for you before they start to ask questions in a death, then by all means say the magic words; “I want my attorney now” or “I am using my right to remain silent” and it is even better to say both to as many cops and video cameras as possible so no one misunderstands you are invoking your Miranda rights.

I am NOT saying not work with law enforcement, but be smart and protect yourself and your company before you cause yourself to go to jail or get a multi-million dollar judgment against you and your company.  Anytime you are arrested you need your attorney BEFORE you start answering questions for law enforcement.  It is better to be safe than sitting in jail for 3-5 years because you failed to ask for your attorney.

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The information, advice and opinions in Legal Lane are entirely those of Jim C. Klepper.