WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court retreated from strict enforcement of the famous Miranda decision on Tuesday, ruling that a crime suspect's words could be used against him if he failed to invoke his rights clearly and, instead, answered a single question after nearly three hours of interrogation.
In the past, the court has said the "burden rests on the government" to show that a crime suspect has "knowingly and intelligently waived" his rights.
But in a 5-4 decision Tuesday, the court said the suspect had the duty to invoke his rights. If he failed to do so, his later words can be used to convict him, the justices said.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that police were "not required to obtain a waiver" of the suspect's "right to remain silent before interrogating him."
In this case, Michigan police had informed the suspect, Van Thompkins, of his rights, including the right to remain silent. Thompkins said he understood, but he did not tell the officer he wanted to stop the questioning or speak to a lawyer.
But he sat in a chair and said nothing for about two hours and 45 minutes. At that point, the officer asked, "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?"
"Yes," Thompson said and looked away. He refused to sign a confession or speak further, but he was convicted of first-degree murder, based largely on his one-word reply.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Thompkins' conviction on the grounds that the use of the incriminating answer violated his right against self-incrimination under the Miranda decision.
The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and reinstated the conviction. "A suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings and has not invoked his Miranda rights waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police," Kennedy said. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Speaking for the dissenters, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ruling "marks a substantial retreat from the protections against compelled self-incrimination that Miranda vs. Arizona has long provided." She said the conviction should be overturned because the prosecution had not "carried its burden to show that he waived his right to remain silent."