Sotomayor backs rights

A cop-vs.-bad-guy ruling is offering an inkling of just what kind of jurist Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor might become.

America, she's got your back.

The Latina justice has penned her first blast, a dissent of the court's recent 5-4 ruling in Berghuis v. Thompkins. The decision, in her words, "turns Miranda upside down."

Miranda. Anyone who has spent any time with the TV remote can recite the most familiar part of the so-called Miranda warning: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."

But what if, in order to remain silent, you have to speak up? Counterintuitive, right? Sotomayor and Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer thought so. But a majority of the justices disagreed. The court ruled that simply keeping mum is not enough; a suspect must invoke their Miranda rights "unambiguously."

In fact, this is but one of a series of high court rulings in recent months that have effectively nipped away at the Miranda ruling. Decisions in February allow police to change the wording of Miranda warnings and to make further attempts to question someone who has invoked his Miranda rights, if the person was released and 14 days have passed.

Perhaps because it is occurring incrementally, few outside the legal community have taken note of the trend. The minutiae of such decisions are complicated and less enticing than other news of the day. And besides, as long as the good guys win out over the bad, who cares how we get there, right?

We ought to care. Ingrained since the Miranda v. Arizona ruling of 1966, the Miranda warning is a standard protection against self-incrimination and a means for ensuring that people have proper legal counsel.

Sotomayor's scathing rebuke to the most recent ruling sends up the warning flare. In this case, a man was convicted of first-degree murder and received a sentence of life in prison with no parole largely due to his one-word reply of "Yes" during an interrogation.

In 2000, a man died in a shooting outside a Michigan mall. Van Chester Thompkins was arrested as a suspect the following year and was read his rights. He indicated he understood them, but refused to sign a waiver. After nearly three hours with detectives during which he uttered only a few replies, police asked him a series of questions about his faith.

"Do you believe in God?" "Do you pray to him?" "Do you pray to God for forgiveness for shooting that boy down?"

Thompkins said, "Yes."

The reply was ruled admissible, despite a lack of a signed confession.

The original Miranda ruling addressed the thorny issue of a suspect's broken silence. "A valid waiver will not be presumed simply from the silence of the accused after warnings are given, or simply from the fact that a confession was in fact eventually obtained." Or, in plain speech, just because a suspect keeps mum doesn't necessarily mean he understands his rights.

Solid police work has never relied on coercing confessions out of people, badgering them to the point they begin implicating themselves. At least, not since Miranda instilled fairness. But the recent high court decisions mean police have more leeway to keep doggedly questioning a suspect.

Public apathy toward changes in Miranda may stem from the conventional wisdom that criminals have more rights than victims. But zeal for fighting crime shouldn't be allowed to undercut American standards like "innocent until proven guilty."

For even Ernesto Miranda, the deceased man whose name is enshrined in this important precedent, was eventually convicted of rape on the strength of other evidence. Good policing is based on building cases, not on coercing confessions. Sonia Sotomayor seems to understand that. What's the matter with the conservatives on the court?

Contact Sanchez at msanchez@kcstar.com.