Berghuis v. Thomkins (2010)

Supreme Court of the United States

Mary Berghuis v. Van Chester Thomkins 

Decided June 1, 2010 – 560 U.S. 370


Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.




On January 10, 2000, a shooting occurred outside a mall in Southfield, Michigan. Among the victims was Samuel Morris, who died from multiple gunshot wounds. The other victim, Frederick France, recovered from his injuries and later testified. 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, then awaiting transfer to Michigan. The interrogation began around 1:30 p.m. and 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 (it had an arm on it that swings around to provide a surface to write on). At the beginning of the interrogation, one of the officers, Detective Helgert, presented Thompkins with a form derived from the Miranda rule. It stated:


“1. You have the right to remain silent.

“2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.

“3. You have a right to talk to a lawyer before answering any questions and you have the right to have a lawyer present with you while you are answering any questions.

“4. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish one.

“5. 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.”

Helgert asked Thompkins to read the fifth warning out loud. Thompkins complied. Helgert later said this was to ensure that Thompkins could read, and Helgert concluded that Thompkins understood English. Helgert then read the other four Miranda warnings out loud 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. 

Officers began an interrogation. 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. 

Thompkins was charged with first-degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder, and certain firearms-related offenses. He moved to suppress the statements made during the interrogation. He argued that he had invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, requiring police to end the interrogation at once, that he had not waived his right to remain silent, and that his inculpatory statements were involuntary. The trial court denied the motion.

The jury found Thompkins guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.



All concede that the warning given in this case was in full compliance with the [Miranda] requirements. The dispute centers on the response—or nonresponse—from the suspect.


Thompkins makes various arguments that his answers to questions from the detectives were inadmissible. He first contends that he “invoke[d] his privilege” to remain silent by not saying anything for a sufficient period of time, so the interrogation should have “cease[d]” before he made his inculpatory statements. 

This argument is unpersuasive. In the context of invoking the Miranda right to counsel, the Court [has] held that a suspect must do so “unambiguously.” 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.

The Court has not yet stated whether an invocation of the right to remain silent can be ambiguous or equivocal, but 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. Both protect the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination by requiring an interrogation to cease when either right is invoked.

There is good reason to require an accused who wants to invoke his or her right to remain silent to do so unambiguously. 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. If an ambiguous act, omission, or statement could require police to end the interrogation, police would be required to make difficult decisions about an accused’s unclear intent and face the consequence of suppression “if they guess wrong.” Suppression of a voluntary confession in these circumstances would place a significant burden on society’s interest in prosecuting criminal activity. Treating an ambiguous or equivocal act, omission, or statement as an invocation of Miranda rights “might add marginally to Miranda’s goal of dispelling the compulsion inherent in custodial interrogation.” But “as Miranda holds, full comprehension of the rights to remain silent and request an attorney are sufficient to dispel whatever coercion is inherent in the interrogation process.”

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.’” Here he did neither, so he did not invoke his right to remain silent.


We next consider whether Thompkins waived his right to remain silent. …

The prosecution [] 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. If the State establishes that a Miranda warning was given and the accused made an uncoerced statement, this showing, standing alone, is insufficient to demonstrate “a valid waiver” of Miranda rights. The prosecution must make the additional showing that the accused understood these rights. 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.


The record in this case shows that Thompkins waived his right to remain silent. 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. There was more than enough evidence in the record to conclude that Thompkins understood his Miranda rights. Thompkins received a written copy of the Miranda warnings; Detective Helgert determined that Thompkins could read and understand English; and Thompkins was given time to read the warnings. Thompkins, furthermore, read aloud the fifth warning, which stated that “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.” He was thus aware that his right to remain silent would not dissipate after a certain amount of time and that police would have to honor his right to be silent and his right to counsel during the whole course of interrogation. Those rights, the warning made clear, could be asserted at any time. Helgert, moreover, read the warnings aloud.

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. The fact that Thompkins made a statement about three hours after receiving a Miranda warning does not overcome the fact that he engaged in a course of conduct indicating waiver. 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. Thompkins does not claim that police threatened or injured him during the interrogation or that he was in any way fearful. 



In sum, a suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police. Thompkins did not invoke his right to remain silent and stop the questioning. Understanding his rights in full, he waived his right to remain silent by making a voluntary statement to the police. The police, moreover, were not required to obtain a waiver of Thompkins’ right to remain silent before interrogating him. The state court’s decision rejecting Thompkins’ Miranda claim was thus correct.


[The Court held that Thomkins could not show prejudice from ineffective assistance of counsel.]

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded with instructions to deny the petition.

Justice SOTOMAYOR, with whom Justice STEVENS, Justice GINSBURG, and Justice BREYER join, dissenting.

The Court concludes today that a criminal suspect waives his right to remain silent if, after sitting tacit and uncommunicative through nearly three hours of police interrogation, he utters a few one-word responses. The Court also concludes that a suspect who wishes to guard his right to remain silent against such a finding of “waiver” must, counterintuitively, speak—and must do so with sufficient precision to satisfy a clear-statement rule that construes ambiguity in favor of the police. Both propositions mark a substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination that Miranda v. Arizona has long provided during custodial interrogation. 

This Court’s decisions subsequent to Miranda have emphasized the prosecution’s “heavy burden” in proving waiver. We have also reaffirmed that a court may not presume waiver from a suspect’s silence or from the mere fact that a confession was eventually obtained. 

Even in concluding that Miranda does not invariably require an express waiver of the right to silence or the right to counsel, this Court in Butler made clear that the prosecution bears a substantial burden in establishing an implied waiver.

It is undisputed here that Thompkins never expressly waived his right to remain silent. His refusal to sign even an acknowledgment that he understood his Miranda rights evinces, if anything, an intent not to waive those rights. That Thompkins did not make the inculpatory statements at issue until after approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes of interrogation serves as “strong evidence” against waiver. Miranda and Butler expressly preclude the possibility that the inculpatory statements themselves are sufficient to establish waiver.


Today’s decision turns Miranda upside down. Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent—which, counterintuitively, requires them to speak. At the same time, suspects will be legally presumed to have waived their rights even if they have given no clear expression of their intent to do so. Those results, in my view, find no basis in Miranda or our subsequent cases and are inconsistent with the fair-trial principles on which those precedents are grounded. Today’s broad new rules are all the more unfortunate because they are unnecessary to the disposition of the case before us. I respectfully dissent.

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