The Supreme Court ruled 6–3 on June 23 that police can’t be sued for failing to read an accused person his Miranda rights before moving forward with questioning.
The court’s landmark 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona generally prevents criminal courts from accepting as evidence against a criminal defendant any self-incriminating statement made by that defendant while he’s in custody unless he first receives certain warnings spelled out in the Miranda decision. Critics have long decried Miranda as a judicial invention outside the U.S. Constitution that allows criminals to escape justice.
The case goes back to 2014 when Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega arrested Terence Tekoh on suspicion that he had sexually assaulted a patient at a Los Angeles medical facility where he worked. Tekoh provided a confession to police even though they had failed to provide a so-called Miranda warning to him before he offered the confession, which he later recanted. The warning begins, “You have the right to remain silent …” The confession was admitted into evidence at the criminal trial but the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
The Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, provides a damages remedy for deprivations of any right secured by the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States.
Despite being acquitted, Tekoh believed his rights had been violated and decided to sue the police.
In Tekoh’s civil rights suit filed under the law, the trial court held that Miranda-related violations weren’t sufficient to justify lawsuits against arresting officers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the trial court, and Vega filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court’s new opinion (pdf) in Vega v. Tekoh, court file 21-499. The other five conservative justices joined the opinion. Liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by the other two liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Oral arguments took place on April 20.
“Because a violation of Miranda is not itself a violation of the Fifth Amendment, and because we see no justification for expanding Miranda to confer a right to sue under [Section] 1983, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Alito wrote for the court.
The Miranda precedent “rests on a pragmatic judgment about what is needed to stop the violation at trial of the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.” Its “prophylactic purpose is served by the suppression at trial of statements obtained in violation of Miranda and by the application of that decision in other recognized contexts.”
Allowing a victim of a Miranda violation to sue a police officer for damages “would have little additional deterrent value, and permitting such claims would cause many problems,” Alito wrote.
Indeed, allowing a claim like Tekoh’s would disserve “judicial economy,” the justice wrote, citing Parklane Hosiery Co. v. Shore (1979). Re-adjudicating something already adjudicated would be wasteful and go against the judicial policy against creating two conflicting resolutions based on the same set of facts and create unneeded friction between courts, he added.
“Allowing [Section] 1983 suits based on Miranda claims could also present many procedural issues, such as whether a federal court considering a [Section] 1983 claim would owe any deference to a trial court’s factual findings; whether forfeiture and plain error rules carry over from the criminal trial; whether harmless-error rules apply; and whether civil damages are available in instances where the unwarned statement had no impact on the outcome of the criminal case.”
“We therefore refuse to extend Miranda in the way Tekoh requests,” Alito wrote, adding that existing precedents already “provide sufficient protection for the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.”
In her dissenting opinion, Kagan accused the court majority of stripping “individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda.”
As the majority acknowledges, defendants still may seek “suppression at trial of statements obtained” in violation of Miranda’s procedures.
“But sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed,” Kagan wrote. “And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison. He may succeed … in getting the conviction reversed. But then, what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered?”
Lawyers for both sides shared their perspectives on the new ruling with The Epoch Times.
“We welcome the Court’s ruling, which confirms that Deputy Vega cannot be sued for his good-faith effort to investigate the alleged sexual assault of a defenseless hospital patient,” Vega’s attorney, Roman Martinez of Latham and Watkins LLP, wrote in an email.
“As the Court explained, the landmark Miranda decision establishes an important prophylactic rule protecting the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. But the failure to give a Miranda warning does not automatically equate to a violation of the Fifth Amendment. Here, two state judges concluded that Deputy Vega did not violate Miranda, and two federal juries found that he did not violate the Constitution. The Justices rightly rejected liability in these circumstances.”
Tekoh’s attorney, Paul L. Hoffman of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman and Zeldes LLP, was disappointed by the ruling.
“Our view of the decision is much the same as Justice Kagan’s dissent. It is difficult to understand how the violation of a constitutional rule is not also the violation of a ‘right secured by the Constitution’ for section 1983 purposes and the availability of a constitutional remedy,” Hoffman wrote in an email.
“Unfortunately, the decision will leave many people, including wrongfully convicted people, without any remedy.”