The 5th Amendment Right to remain silent is among the most important rights that a criminal suspect has. It is the right against self-incrimination which means the suspect does not have to say anything since he or she may very well say something incriminating.
This very important right is the essence of Miranda warnings which we have all heard on television. It comes in some variation but the gist of most such warnings includes something like, “you have a right to remain silent… anything you say may and will be used against you.”
The New Mexico Supreme Court case State v. King addressed these rights. In this case, the Court had to decide whether the defendant had unequivocally invoked his right to remain silent when he indicated twice that he did not want to answer questions “at the moment” during an interrogation.
According to the facts of the case, the defendant had been suspected of aggravated battery. The detective then asked the defendant if he understood his rights, to which the defendant replied, “Yeah.”
The detective next asked the defendant if he wanted to answer any questions. The defendant said, “Not at this moment. Kind of intoxicated.” The detective told the defendant that intoxication wasn‘t a reason to avoid answering questions, and he placed a waiver of rights form in front of the defendant.
He instructed the defendant to sign the form if he wanted to answer questions. King responded, “Like I said, not at the moment.” The detective again told the defendant that intoxication wasn‘t a reason for not giving a statement. Eventually the detective “elicited an incriminating statement” from the defendant.
Based on the incriminating statement, the defendant was charged with first-degree murder. At trial, he filed a motion to suppress his statement, arguing that he had “twice unambiguously invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent” when he told the detective that he didn‘t want to answer questions at the moment. The district court granted the motion to suppress, and the State appealed.
The New Mexico Supreme Court looked to the specific language of the Miranda case, which interprets the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In the Miranda case, the United States Supreme Court held that, once the Miranda warnings are given, “the subsequent procedure” for police officers “is clear.”
In no uncertain terms, the United States Supreme Court made clear that “if the [defendant] indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease.”
The rule has since been refined to mean that the defendant must give an unambiguous statement that he or she does not wish to answer questions. The primary issue for the New Mexico Supreme Court was whether the defendant‘s statements that he didn‘t want to answer questions “at the moment” were unambiguous.
One threshold requirement for the application of Miranda is that the suspect be in custody. Specifically, it must be a “custodial interrogation” not a voluntary discussion. If the defendant is not in custody, he is free to leave and he should do just that. The Court indicated that the defendant in this case was in custody and under interrogation for the purposes of Miranda.
The Court then addressed whether the statements from the defendant were unequivocal. The Court noted that the defendant declined to answer the detective‘s questions twice verbally, and the detective had to tell the defendant to sign the form waiving his rights six times before he actually signed it.
During these exchanges, the defendant stated a number of times that he did not want to answer questions at the moment because he was intoxicated. The officer asserted each time that intoxication was not a reason to decline questioning.
The State presented no case-law that supported this assertion by the officer regarding intoxication and the Court concluded there was no such law. The Court ruled rightly that no reason need be given at all for exercising one‘s Miranda rights.
In the end, the Court determined that King‘s actions were unequivocal, and that there was “nothing ambiguous about his statement, which made it clear that he did not want to speak with the police.” Upon invoking his Miranda rights, the questioning should have stopped immediately.
There are a few important points for suspects facing questioning from officers. First, if you are not in custody, you need not and should not converse with the police. Second, if you are in custody and you are a suspect, you need not and should not converse with police.
The moral to this story is clear. You have a right to remain silent. Exercise your right to remain silent and then shut up. It‘s as simple as that.
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