Supreme Silence

silenceThe Supreme Court narrowly ruled this week that suspects must state their intent to remain silent under their Miranda rights in order to stop a police interrogation.  To be honest, it took me several readings of all the initial hoopla this generated to figure out what the ruling actually meant, and even now, I don’t get what all the fuss is about.

Listening to the initial outrage, I had originally assumed this meant suspects no longer had to be read their Miranda rights, and that would forever change the landscape of prime time cop dramas.  But that’s not the case at all.  It’s just that in the same way that you have to say you really want a lawyer, you have to say you really want to be quiet.  This seems completely consistent.  It’s even the same as your 5th Amendment right to not incriminate yourself or testify against your spouse.  That right doesn’t mean no one can ask you a potentially incriminating question, just that you don’t have to answer it.

Curiously, this all came about because suspect Van Chester Thompkins sat for hours in silence during a police interrogation, then broke down and confessed.  His position was that his prolonged silence should have been interpreted by police as him invoking his right to be silent, and therefore the interrogation should have stopped at some point prior to his confession.

Huh?  Really?  If Thompkins wanted the interrogation to stop, he could have either asked for his lawyer or said he was invoking his right to be silent.  Failing that (here’s a wacky notion) he could have avoided the confession by simply remaining silent.  It’s not like he was being waterboarded.

Justice Sotomayor dissented with the decision noting the irony of requiring someone to speak to invoke their right to silence.  But that’s sophistry.  Silence in this context doesn’t mean a right to remain mute.  It means a right to not answer questions.  The suspect also would have had to ask for water, food, or bathroom breaks.  Even if he didn’t want to risk flapping his gums he could have communicated his desire as a note or a game or precinct charades.

I just can’t see what the Civil Libertarians are all atwitter about.  As a suspect, you have no less rights that you used to have.  You still hold all the cards you did before.  It’s just that you have to decide to actually play them.  Am I missing something?

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