Berghuis v. Thompkins

PETITIONER: Mary Berghuis, Warden
RESPONDENT: Van Chester Thompkins

DOCKET NO.: 08-1470
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 560 US 370 (2010)
GRANTED: Sep 30, 2009
ARGUED: Mar 01, 2010
DECIDED: Jun 01, 2010

B. Eric Restuccia - Solicitor General, Lansing Michigan, for the petitioner
Elizabeth L. Jacobs - on behalf of the respondent
Nicole A. Saharsky - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the petitioner

Facts of the case

A Michigan state court convicted Van Chester Thompkins of first-degree murder, assault with intent to commit murder, and several firearms related charges. After exhausting his remedies in Michigan state court, Thompkins petitioned for habeas corpus relief in a Michigan federal district court. The district court denied the petition.

On appeal, Thompkins argued that his confession was obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment and that he was denied effective counsel at trial. The Sixth Circuit held that the Michigan Supreme Court's finding that Thompkins waived his Fifth Amendment right was unreasonable because Thompkins refused to sign an acknowledgement that he had been informed of his Miranda rights and rarely made eye contact with the officer throughout the three hour interview. The Sixth Circuit also held that the Michigan Supreme Court improperly determined that Thompkins was not prejudiced by his counsel's failure to request a limiting instruction related to his separately tried co-defendant's testimony.


1) Did the Sixth Circuit improperly expand the Miranda rule when it held that defendant's Fifth Amendment rights were violated?

2) Did the Sixth Circuit fail to give the state court deference when it granted habeas corpus relief with respect to defendant's ineffective counsel argument when there was substantial evidence of the defendant's guilt?

Media for Berghuis v. Thompkins

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 01, 2010 in Berghuis v. Thompkins

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 01, 2010 in Berghuis v. Thompkins

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Next Justice Kennedy has our opinion in case 08-1470, Burghuis versus Thompkins.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

After a jury trial in a Michigan State Court, Van Chester Tompkins was convicted of murder.

In this habeas corpus proceeding, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that there had been two separate constitutional errors to this trial.

First, they determined that a statement by the accused relied on at trial by the prosecution had been elicited in violation of Miranda versus Arizona.

Second, it found that failure to ask for an instruction relating to testimony from an accomplice was ineffective assistance by defense counsel.

We conclude that the Court of Appeals erred in both of its rulings.

We begin with the Miranda issue.

After arresting Thompkins, two detectives interrogated him and one was Detective Helgert.

Helgert presented Tompkins with a written form derived from the Miranda rule.

The form was broken down into five parts at the request of Detective Helgert, Thompkins himself read one of these parts out loud the others were read aloud by Helgert.

The officers then began the interrogation.

At no point did Thompkins say he wanted to remain silent or that he did not wanted to talk to the police or that he wanted an attorney.

He was largely silent during the investigation and it lasted about three hours.

About two and three quarters hours into the interrogation, two hours and 45 minutes Helgert asked Thompkins, do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down.

Thompkins answered yes and looked away and that was the statement that was used against Thompkins at his trial.

Thompkins argued that he invoked his right to remain silent by not saying anything for a sufficient period of time.

So that the interrogation should have ceased before he made his inculpatory statements.

This argument is unpersuasive.

To invoke the Miranda right to remain silent an accused must do so unambiguously.

A requirement of an unambiguous invocation of Miranda rights results in an objective inquiry that avoids difficulties of proof and provides guidance to officers on how to proceed in the face of ambiguity.

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 statements, he would have invoked his right to cut off questioning.

Now, even absent the accused invocation of the right to remain silent, a statement by the accused during custodial interrogation is still inadmissible at trial unless the prosecution can establish that the accused in fact knowingly and voluntarily waive Miranda rights when making the statement and Thompkins contend that he did not -- contends that he did not waive his right to remain silent.

The course of decisions since Miranda informed by the application of Miranda warnings in the whole course of law-enforcement demonstrates that waivers can be established even absent formal or express statements of waiver.

The main purpose of Miranda is to ensure that the accused is advised of and understands the right to remain silent and the right to counsel.

Thus the Miranda rule and its requirements are met if a suspect receives adequate Miranda warnings, understands them, and has an opportunity to invoke the rights before giving any answers.

The record in this case shows that Thompkins waived his right to remain silent.

There is no contention that Thompkins did not understand his rights.

Thompkins was given a form that listed his rights and all of the rights were read aloud one by Thompkins and the others by Detective Helgert.

Thompkins’ answers 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.