Share this @internewscast.com
In a decision that undermines almost 60 years of precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court last month declared that police officers who don’t issue Miranda warnings before interrogations can’t be sued for violating the Constitution. Named after the 1966 Supreme Court case decision, Miranda v. Arizona, law enforcement is generally required to issue Miranda warnings to inform criminal suspects that they have a right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Without those now famous Miranda warnings, any evidence gained during an interrogation cannot be used against the defendant in a criminal case.
But the court’s new decision in Vega v. Tekoh “strips individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda,” Justice Elena Kagan warned in a dissent. As a result, the Supreme Court has effectively created a new legal immunity for cops accused of infringing on the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
The case dates back to March 2014, when Terence Tekoh, a certified nursing aide, was accused of sexually assaulting a patient at the hospital where he worked. Sent to investigate the case, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega interrogated Tekoh in a small, windowless room at the hospital. According to Tekoh, Vega blocked Tekoh from leaving, ignored his pleas to see an attorney, and even threatened deportation for Tekoh and his family.
Ultimately, Vega coerced Tekoh to confess and write a false letter of apology by Vega; the deputy denies the allegations. Both men, however, agree that Tekoh wasn’t “Mirandized,” or read his rights.
Based on that confession, Tekoh was arrested and charged with unlawful sexual penetration. His first trial resulted in a mistrial, while the second trial ended with Tekoh acquitted. In both trials, the government introduced Tekoh’s un-Mirandized statements.
Afterwards, Tekoh sued Vega in federal court, arguing the deputy violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. More specifically, Tekoh filed under Section 1983, which authorizes civil rights lawsuits against state and local officials responsible for the “deprivation of any rights…secured by the Constitution.” A district court ruled against Tekoh, but was overturned by the Ninth Circuit on appeal. In turn, that decision was overruled by the Supreme Court.
The High Court has previously ruled that Miranda was a “constitutional decision” and called Miranda warnings themselves a “constitutional rule.” Nevertheless, by a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court ruled in Vega v. Tekoh that “a violation of Miranda is not itself a violation of the Fifth Amendment.” Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito instead claimed that the Miranda decision merely “imposed a set of prophylactic rules” on law enforcement.
Although Alito hinted in a footnote that the Supreme Court may lack “the authority to create constitutionally based prophylactic rules,” Vega v. Tekoh still allows defendants in criminal cases to suppress statements obtained from interrogations that weren’t properly Mirandized (at least for now). But anyone who has been wrongfully convicted or imprisoned because they weren’t properly informed of their constitutional rights can no longer sue the officers responsible in civil court.
As Justice Kagan noted in her dissent, “sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed. And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison…what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered?”
Kagan’s concern is hardly hypothetical. An amicus brief by several scholars on wrongful convictions estimated that “false confessions have contributed to hundreds of wrongful convictions,” while the proportion of “miscarriages of justice involving false confessions range from 14% to 60%.”
To right this wrong, suing rogue officers for damages can both compensate victims and provide a powerful deterrent against future abuses, which is why Congress enacted Section 1983 in the first place. And a new database by the Institute for Justice identified multiple cases where federal courts from around the country have allowed civil lawsuits against officers who failed to issue Miranda warnings. But Vega, Kagan noted, “injures the right by denying the remedy.”