Is Miranda Dead?

Have the Supremes given the police more power??

In the recent Thompkins case, the Supreme Court ruled that unless a citizen who’s under arrest as a criminal suspect actually says, “I don’t want to talk or I won’t talk without a lawyer,” police can continue questioning him for a long time..until they get a confession.

Suspect, Van Chester Thompkins, after he was read his Miranda rights–which say a person may remain silent and that if he wants, he may have a lawyer present before answering any questions–didn’t say anything. Police continued to question him for three hours. Finally, in a question about God, Thompkins confessed to a murder.

In my experience as a prosecutor and defense lawyer, even the juveniles know enough, by now, to tell police they don’t want to talk. At least in Minnesota, the police respect the law and quit questioning.

The Supremes now say that unless the suspect specifically says he doesn’t want to talk anymore, the police can wear him down and keep questioning for as long as they all have the patience.

Is this right?

The decision was close, 5-4, with the dissent saying the decision “turns Miranda upside down,” because now a person, instead of remaining silent, has to…well, talk. And say they don’t want to talk!

Does this sound like a bunch of “out-of -touch” judges? Only a lawyer could think up this kind of stuff.

The Miranda decision was always a balancing act. The Supremes tried to balance the need of the community/police to get information against the right of citizens to not implicate themselves in crimes. (A basic Constitutional right, after all) If the suspect clammed-up, it could frustrate an investigation but protected our basic rights as citizens.

In my experience, the Miranda right to remain silent is seldom a deterrent to good police work. Almost always, there is more evidence in a case that points to the suspect. Sure, a confession is always helpful to the prosecution! But many times, the police have done enough to obtain evidence to convict without a confession.

In the few instances where there aren’t any other witnesses and a confession would solve the case, the police and prosecutors are hampered without it.

I’ve found that many suspects confess anyway. Even after they’ve been given their Miranda warnings, they still love to talk. Good cops are trained to take advantage of this need for most criminals to “spill their guts.” I remember working with a Minneapolis cop we called, “Father O’Brien.” His real name was Dick O’Brien (Unfortunately he died much too young) and he was an expert at getting confessions from suspects. Even after he’d given a Miranda warning, he’d ask if the suspect wanted to talk about other things–they usually did. Sure enough, Father O’Brien would work the conversation around to the crime, remind the suspect of his right to remain silent, and the suspect would confess to everything!

What do you think of the Court’s ruling? Do police have too much power? Not enough?

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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