WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court backed off Tuesday from strict enforcement of the famous Miranda decision and its right to remain silent, ruling that a crime suspect's words may be used against him if he fails to clearly tell the police that he does not want to talk.

In the past, the court had said the "burden rests on the government" to show that a suspect has "knowingly and intelligently waived" his rights. Some police departments tell officers not to begin questioning until a suspect has waived his rights, usually by signing a waiver form.

But in Tuesday's 5-4 decision, the court shifted the balance in favor of the police and against the suspect. It said the suspect has a duty to speak up and to say he does not want to talk. Moreover, the police are "not required to obtain a waiver" of the suspect's "right to remain silent before interrogating him," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

In her first strongly written dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ruling in Berghuis v. Thompkins "turns Miranda upside down" and "marks a substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination."

Some experts on police questioning said the court's subtle shift would be felt in stationhouses across the country.

"This is the most important Miranda decision in a decade. And it will have a substantial impact on police practices," said Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the case decided Tuesday, Van Thompkins was arrested in the January 2000 shooting of two men outside a mall in Southfield, Mich. One of them died. A police detective read Thompkins his rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer. Thompkins said he understood but did not sign a form.

For about 2 hours and 45 minutes, Thompkins said almost nothing in response to questions. The detective asked the suspect if he believed in God and then said, "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?"

"Yes," Thompkins replied, and looked away. He refused to sign a confession or to speak further, but he was convicted of first-degree murder, based in large measure on his one-word reply.

The Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned Thompkins' conviction on the grounds that the use of the incriminating answer violated his right against self-incrimination under the 1966 Miranda decision.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed the appeals ruling and reinstated Thompkins' conviction. A suspect who wants to invoke his right to remain silent must "do so unambiguously," Kennedy wrote. "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, unambiguous statements, he would have invoked his right to cut off questioning."

Joining Kennedy in the majority were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Kennedy has played a key role in the last decade in preserving the core Miranda rule, while also narrowing its practical effect. For example, he joined with the liberal bloc for a 5-4 ruling in 2004 rejecting the police tactic of questioning first and then warning a suspect of his rights only after he made an incriminating comment. The same day, he joined a 5-4 ruling by the conservative side that said physical evidence, such as a gun or cash, may be used against a suspect, even if the suspect revealed it during questioning without Miranda warnings.

In Tuesday's decision, Kennedy stressed that the suspect had been warned of his rights and had eventually chosen to speak.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation praised the justices for paring back the "artificial rule" set in the Miranda decision. The court "recognized the practical realities that the police face in dealing with suspects," said Kent Scheidegger, the group's legal director.

Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the case "demonstrates the power of custodial interrogation to wear down the defendant's willpower, which is what Miranda was designed to prevent."

In her dissent, Sotomayor faulted the majority for announcing a "new general principle of law" that would be confusing in practice. "Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent - which, counterintuitively, requires them to speak," she wrote. Joining her in dissent were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

The majority ruling is in line with the position taken by the Obama administration and U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, the president's nominee to succeed Stevens on the court. In December, Kagan filed a brief on the side of Michigan prosecutors and argued that "the government need not prove that a suspect expressly waived his rights."

Other Action by the Justices

The Supreme Court

on Tuesday also:

Decided unanimously that a former Somalian official could not use the federal foreign sovereign immunity law to protect himself from a lawsuit filed in a U.S. court by alleged Somalian victims of persecution.

Ruled, 6-3, that a federal law requiring sex offenders to register with authorities when they move to another state does not apply to people who moved before the law took effect.

Agreed to decide whether student doctors are students or employees when it comes to collecting Social Security taxes, a question worth $700 million a year to the retirement system.

Received a brief submitted by 48 states (all but Virginia and Maine) and the District of Columbia in support of a York, Pa., man who sued antigay protesters over their demonstration at the 2006 funeral of his son,

a Marine killed in Iraq.

The court has agreed to consider whether the protesters' message is protected by the First Amendment.

S0URCE: Associated PressEndText

Read the justices' opinions in the Miranda-rights case via http://go.philly.

com/mirandaEndText