Berghuis v. Thompkins

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Whether a state court’s determination that a defendant’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were not violated — where he was interrogated for three hours while silent before making an incriminating statement and where his lawyer failed to request a limiting instruction — is entitled to deference under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.


Oral argument: 
March 1, 2009


In February of 2001, Southfield, Michigan police officers questioned Van Chester Thompkins (“Thompkins”) for roughly three hours about a shooting that had occurred over one year prior. Although Thompkins remained silent for much of the interrogation, he ultimately provided police with incriminating statements. In 2002, Thompkins was convicted of first-degree murder. In a habeas corpus proceeding pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the Sixth Circuit reversed the conviction, finding that Thompkins had not waived his Miranda rights and that he had been unfairly prejudiced by ineffective counsel. The Supreme Court will decide whether the Sixth Circuit (1) erroneously expanded the Miranda rule so as to prevent officers from persuading defendants to cooperate who neither invoked nor waived their Miranda rights and (2) violated 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) by failing to afford the state appellate court deference with respect to the ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The decisions will likely impact the manner in which the police approach and question suspects who have neither explicitly invoked nor waived their Miranda rights.


Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

I. Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit expanded the Miranda rule to prevent an officer from attempting to non-coercively persuade a defendant to cooperate where the officer informed the defendant of his rights, the defendant acknowledged that he understood them, and the defendant did not invoke them but did not waive them.

II. Whether the Sixth Circuit failed to afford the State court the deference it was entitled to under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), when it granted habeas relief with respect to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim where the substantial evidence of Thompkins' guilt allowed the State court to reasonably reject the claim.


On January 10, 2000, Samuel Morris and Frederick France were repeatedly shot while driving through a strip mall parking lot in Southfield Michigan.   The shots killed Morris and severely wounded France.  France told police and later testified that a group of men got into a van and pulled up alongside Morris and France before a man sitting in the passenger’s seat pulled out a gun and sprayed Morris’s car with bullets. 

The police investigation quickly pointed to Eric Purifoy and Van Chester Thompkins.  Purifoy was arrested and charged with the murder of Samuel Morris including the assault and the weapon offenses but was subsequently acquitted of the murder and assault charges.  Thompkins, however, evaded the police until February 19, 2001, more than a year after the shooting and six months after Purifoy was acquitted of the murder charges. 

Three days after his capture, the Southfield police department interrogated Thompkins at a jail in Ohio.  At the outset of the interrogation, Detective Christopher Helgert read Thompkins his  rights and received Thompkins’ verbal confirmation of his understanding, although Thompkins refused to sign a form stating he acknowledged those rights.  Over the course of the interrogation, Thompkins was largely silent, answering only a few questions either non-verbally or with simple statements such as “yeah,” “no,” or “I don’t know.”  After nearly three hours, Helgert tried what he called a “different tack.”  After asking Thompkins whether he believed in and prayed to God, Helgert asked whether Thompkins had asked God for forgiveness for “shooting that boy down.”  Thompkins replied, “Yes.” 

At Thompkins’ trial, the defense moved to suppress Thompkins’ incriminating response.  The trial court denied the motion, ruling that Thompkins did not invoke his right to remain silent and indeed engaged in limited interactions with the police in response to direct questioning.  At trial, the defense presented the theory that Eric Purifoy was the shooter and Thompkins was “merely present.”  To rebut this defense, the prosecution presented the testimony of Frederick French and Purifoy himself.   Detective Helgert took the stand to testify as to Thompkins’ incriminating statement.  Helgert also testified about Purifoy’s acquittal in 2000 and stated that Purifoy “was charged under the theory that he was an Aider and Abettor.”  Tompkins’s attorney did not request that the judge give a limiting instruction to the jury that the evidence of Purifoy’s acquittal be considered only as to his credibility and not as substantive evidence of Thompkins’ guilt.  The jury found Thompkins guilty of murder. 

On appeal in 2004, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Thompkins’ sentence was rejecting his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and violation of his Miranda rights.  In 2005, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied Thompkins’ application for a writ of habeas corpus.  In 2006, however, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and granted Thompkins’ motion on the Miranda and ineffectiveness claims, holding that the Michigan Court of Appeals applied the law in an objectively unreasonable manner.  The State of Michigan and Mary Berghuis, warden of the prison holding Thompkins, appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari in September 2009. 


A federal court is permitted to “entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus . . . on the ground that [a person] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”  Also, a habeas petition for relief will only be granted if the underlying state court judgment resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law” or the underlying judgment was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.”  In this case, the Sixth Circuit reversed the Eastern District of Michigan’s denial of Thompkins’ request for habeas relief, finding that Thompkins’ Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were violated. Michigan appeals to the Supreme Court arguing that the Sixth Circuit’s grant of habeas relief was unreasonable and in stark violation of 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

Thompkins’ Fifth Amendment Claim

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes clear that “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself . . . .”  In accordance with this guarantee, the Supreme Court enunciated a bright-line rule requiring police to inform criminal suspects of various rights, including the right to counsel and the right to remain silent.  Any indication of a desire to remain silent requires the termination of the interrogation, and the prosecution may not introduce any statement from a suspect at trial “unless and until such warnings and waiver are demonstrated by the prosecution . . . .” If a suspect’s statements are admitted at trial without proving waiver, the individual’s Fifth Amendment rights are violated. 

Here, the parties agree that Thompkins received the required Miranda warnings and neither explicitly invoked nor waived his right to remain silent.  And while the parties similarly agree that a Fifth Amendment violation would warrant habeas relief, they dispute the existence of the violation in the first place. More at issue, the parties disagree as to the propriety of the Sixth Circuit’s determination that the Michigan Courts acted unreasonably in rejecting Thompkins’ Fifth Amendment claim.  

In North Carolina v. Butler, the Supreme Court held that under certain circumstances it might be possible to implicitly waive the right to silence.  The Butler Court indicated that while “mere silence is not enough” to constitute a waiver, a “defendant’s silence, coupled with an understanding of his rights and a course of conduct indicating waiver” might support an inference of waiver in some circumstances. Michigan contends that because the Court “has not delineated what course of conduct would be sufficient to manifest such an implied waiver,” the Eastern District of Michigan’s finding of an implied waiver cannot be deemed unreasonable.  Given this absence of clearly established precedent, Michigan argues that it is the Sixth Circuit rather than the Eastern District of Michigan that unreasonably ruled on the writ of habeas corpus. 

Thompkins, on the other hand, distinguishes the facts of Butler and interprets that case narrowly as an exception to Miranda’s bright-line requirement of an affirmative waiver of rights before questioning begins.  The narrow exception carved out in Butler, asserts Thompkins, requires that the suspect immediately converses with the interrogating officer to impliedly waive his right to remain silent.  Without a requirement of immediacy, “courts cannot be assured that the confession is the product of the accused’s unfettered will.”   Because Thompkins remained silent for the majority of his interrogation rather than immediately engaging in conversation with his questioning officers, he claims that the narrow exception announced in Butler is inapplicable and that this case is governed by Miranda and its progeny.  Thompkins, therefore, contends that the Sixth Circuit did not err in vacating the district court’s decision.  

Thompkins’ Sixth Amendment Claim

In addition to finding a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the Sixth Circuit justified its grant of habeas relief on the finding that Thompkins’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated.  Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are governed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In Strickland, the Court held that in order to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show (1) that the counsel made errors so serious or performed so deficiently that he or she did not function as the “counsel” guaranteed to a defendant under the Sixth Amendment and (2) that the counsel’s errors “deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.”  Twelve years after the Strickland decision, however, Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which limits the power of federal courts to grant habeas relief to state prisoners to those situations where the convictions are contrary to “clearly established federal law” or are grounded on “unreasonable determinations of facts in light of the evidence.” 

Thompkins argues that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel because his attorney (1) entered into unfairly prejudicial stipulations, (2) failed to object to prosecutorial misconduct, and, most significantly, (3) failed to request limiting instructions concerning the evidence of Purifoy’s acquittal (since his defense was that Purifoy was the shooter).  Thompkins contends that the evidence of Purifoy’s acquittal was at the center of the prosecution’s case, and therefore, his attorney’s failure to request limiting instructions was objectively unreasonable and extremely prejudicial to his case. . Thompson urges that the Michigan appellate court did not apply the appropriate “outcome determinative” standard of prejudice under Strickland and that his counsel’s errors caused the jury to consider the evidence of Purifoy’s acquittal as substantive evidence of Thompkins’ guilt, rather than for the limited purpose of determining Purifoy’s credibility as a witness.

Michigan maintains, however, that the Michigan appellate court’s application of Strickland was objectively reasonable and, therefore, that the Sixth Circuit erred by failing to afford substantial deference to the state’s determination as called for by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Michigan argues that in order to find that Thompkins’ lawyer’s decision not to request a limiting instruction regarding Purifoy’s acquittal was prejudicial to Thompkins’ case, the Court would have to endorse the theory that the jury disregarded its oath and the parties’ arguments.  . Michigan insists that because Thompkins’ jury “knew that Purifoy was tried under an aiding-and-abetting theory” and was “correctly instructed that it . . . must acquit Thompkins unless it was convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” there was no reasonable danger that it improperly determined Thompkins’ guilt on the basis of the evidence of Purifoy’s acquittal. Michigan urges that because Purifoy was not charged as the shooter, but as an aider and abettor, the jury would not have implemented “a process of elimination” to determine that Purifoy’s acquittal in itself established Thompkins’ guilt.  Thus, Michigan claims that even if the jury considered the acquittal evidence substantively rather than solely for the purpose of determining witness credibility, “Purifoy’s acquittal as an aider and abetter says nothing about Thompkins’ guilt as the shooter.” 


Miranda’s Right to Remain Silent

Petitioner Mary Berghuis, on behalf of the state of Michigan (hereinafter “Michigan”), first contend that the  erred in finding a violation of Van Chester Thompkins’  rights.  She asserts that Thompkins did not invoke his right to remain silent and that even if he did, he impliedly waived that right by engaging in some verbal and non-verbal communication with police during his interrogation.  Thompkins, however, argues that he did not waive his right to remain silent because police began interrogation before obtaining a valid waiver and because a few spoken words after hours of interrogation do not amount to a waiver of the right to silence. 

At the heart of this case is the standard governing a suspect’s waiver of the right to silence under the Fifth Amendment. Thompkins certainly did engage in limited verbal communication with police and never explicitly invoked his right to silence.  However, at the same time, Thompkins maintained silence for hours and refused to sign a document acknowledging his rights.  When facts both support and undermine the proposition that a defendant invoked his right to silence, the standard governing such is incredibly important. Indeed, as the United States asserts in its brief supporting the state, “the Court’s view of the underlying Miranda questions has substantial implications for federal criminal investigations and trials.” 

The United States argues that unless a suspect gives an unambiguous declaration of his intention to invoke his right to remain silent, he has not invoked such a right.  The need for such a rule, the government contends, is to give proper guidance to police and prevent the disruption of legitimate, constitutional law enforcement actions.  Indeed, the same logic, they point out, led the Supreme Court to apply such an “unambiguous” rule to invocations of the right to counsel in Davis v. United States, where it held that once police inform a suspect of the right to counsel, the suspect must clearly invoke that right before police must refrain from questioning. Further, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation contends “It is not the job of the prosecution to convince the court that it was wise for the defendant to waive the right [to remain silent],” but rather, “[i]t must only convince the court that police conducted themselves according to Miranda’s rules and that any waiver and statement were not compelled.” 

In response, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) and the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) submit that a standard requiring unambiguous invocation of the right to remain silent is contrary to the Court’s precedents, will “eviscerate” Miranda, and will only lead to greater confusion among police officers as to whether a suspect has indeed invoked his rights.  The NACDL and ACLU argue that a waiver of the right to remain silent must come before any interrogation. Otherwise, the groups assert, the underlying purpose of Miranda, establishing prophylactic rules to prevent a suspect’s will from being overborne during interrogation, will be undermined by allowing police to pressure a suspect into waiving his rights.  Additionally, NACDL asserts that a clear rule will give police notice of when a valid waiver has occurred so they may proceed with legal questioning, and that Michigan’s expansion of Davis is contrary to accepted police practice.  NACDL points out that “widely-used” training manuals indicate that “what the detectives did in this case—keep after Thompkins in the face of his extended silence—departed substantially from standard police practice.” 


This case concerns the extent to which Miranda prohibits police officers from persuading defendants to cooperate, where the defendant has neither explicitly invoked nor waived his right to remain silent. In addition, this case will examine the contours of habeas petitions under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the context of Fifth and Sixth Amendment claims as well as the deference due state courts. Among other likely effects, the Supreme Court’s decision may affect the way in which police officers go about questioning criminal suspects and the ways in which defense attorneys deal with jury instructions.

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