Berghuis v. Thompkins: Case Brief

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

In ''Berghuis v. Thompkins'', the Supreme Court considered when a suspect in a police interrogation has validly invoked his right to remain silent. This lesson covers the facts of the case, as well as the Supreme Court's holding and analysis.

The Fifth Amendment: The Right to Remain Silent

Imagine that you are walking down the sidewalk, and you decide to cross the street. Unfortunately, the cross-walk is at the next block, and you're in a big hurry. So, you hurriedly jaywalk to the other side of the street. A few blocks later, a police officer stops you. He says he has some questions to ask you, and instructs you to get into the back of his squad car.

Does the officer intend to arrest you for jaywalking? Or, perhaps the officer has mistaken you for a suspect in a serious crime?

Whatever the reason, the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution preserves your right to remain silent. In other words, you have the right to refuse to answer any questions that would require you to disclose information that would expose you to criminal liability. This right (or 'privilege') extends to in-court testimony, as well as police detentions and arrests.

Simply having the right to remain silent is one thing-- putting this venerable right to good use is another matter. In Berghuis v. Thompkins, the Supreme Court considered what is required to use, or invoke, the Fifth Amendment right to silence in the context of an arrest.

The Facts of Berghuis v. Thompkins

Van Chester Thompkins was a suspect in a fatal shooting in 2000. Michigan police officers interrogated Thompkins for nearly three hours. During that time, Thompkins barely spoke. But despite being advised of his right to remain silent, Thompkins did not state that he wished to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence.

As the hours dragged on, the officers decided to appeal to Thompkins's moral sensibilities as a last ditch effort to get him to confess to the shooting. The interrogating officer asked Thompkins if he prayed for God to forgive him for killing the victim. Thompkins simply replied, 'Yes'.

At trial, Thompkins asked the court to suppress (throw out) the statements he made during the interrogation on the basis that he had invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and the officers should have ceased all questioning. The court rejected this argument, and Thompkins was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. A federal appeals court disagreed with the court's approach, and reversed Thompkins's conviction.

The government appealed the decision of the federal court all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

The Questions Presented to the Supreme Court

The facts of the Berghuis v. Thompkins case that are most commonly cited can be distilled into a single question asked of the Supreme Court. Does a suspect's silence during an interrogation constitute an invocation of his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent?

As part of this case, Thompkins also claimed that he suffered from ineffective counsel because his defense didn't ask the court to instruct the jurors properly, with regard to testimony given by alleged accomplice who'd already stood trial.

The Holding and Analysis of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court held that a suspect's silence was insufficient to properly invoke his right to remain silent (and not make incriminating statements) under the provisions of the Fifth Amendment.

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