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Police who don't read Miranda rights can't be sued, Supreme Court rules
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Police who don't read Miranda rights can't be sued, Supreme Court rules

A dissent warns that the majority brings injury to the landmark precedent by not providing a remedy for its enforcement

  • Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Law enforcement officers who fail to give suspects Miranda warnings cannot face lawsuits for violating that bedrock protection, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. 

The justices fell 6-3 on ideological lines, declining to extend precedent that has shaped how Americans view the country’s criminal justice system. Justice Samuel Alito — who wrote the majority opinion — said Miranda violations are not constitutional violations. 

“A violation of Miranda does not necessarily constitute a violation of the Constitution, and therefore such a violation does not constitute ‘the deprivation of [a] right . . . secured by the Constitution,’” the Bush appointee wrote. 

Miranda v. Arizona established a right with which most Americans are familiar, thanks to televised crime procedurals. Police officers are required to inform suspects of their right to remain silent; that anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law; that they have the right to an attorney; and that, if they cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for them. If an officer fails to provide a suspect with the warnings set out in Miranda, prosecutors can’t go to court with anything the suspect has said. 

The case before the high court asks if these rights should be expanded by allowing suspects who are denied Miranda warnings to sue the police for violating their rights. 

Carlos Vega — a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy — was sued after he didn’t recite Miranda warnings before questioning Terence Tekoh about an assault. Tekoh was a hospital orderly at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center when a 53-year-old patient was assaulted. Witnesses identified him as having transported the patient to her room where the assault took place. When Vega took Tekoh to an MRI reading room to ask questions about the incident, Tekoh confessed to assaulting the patient. Vega claims Tekoh was not under arrest or in custody at the time, so he did not read Tekoh his Miranda warnings. 

Alito said Miranda violations do not equal violations of the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. Instead, Alito said Miranda rules are prophylactic rules — a judicially crafted rule to overprotect a constitutional right — that protect the rights held within the Fifth Amendment. 

“In that sense, Miranda was a ‘constitutional decision’ and it adopted a ‘constitutional rule’ because the decision was based on the Court’s judgment about what is required to safeguard that constitutional right,” the Bush appointee wrote. 

Justice Elena Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. She said that Dickerson made it clear that Miranda is a constitutional rule, and therefore it grants the right to have confessions given without Miranda warnings excluded from the trial. 

“From those facts, only one conclusion can follow — that Miranda’s protections are a ‘right[]’ ‘secured by the Constitution’ under the federal civil rights statute,” the Obama appointee wrote. “Yet the Court today says otherwise. It holds that Miranda is not a constitutional right enforceable through a §1983 suit. And so it prevents individuals from obtaining any redress when police violate their rights under Miranda.”

The ruling, Kagan claims, infringes Miranda rights by denying a way to enforce them. 

“The point of §1983 is to provide such redress — because a remedy ‘is a vital component of any scheme for vindicating cherished constitutional guarantees,’” Kagan wrote. “The majority here, as elsewhere, injures the right by denying the remedy.” 

Paul Hoffman, an attorney for Tekoh with the firm Schonbrun Seplow, called it disappointing that Tekoh will not be able to pursue a suit against Vega but said he is hopeful still that the ruling will not impact Miranda.

“How can the violation of a constitutional rule not be the violation of a ‘right…secured by the Constitution’ for section 1983 purposes,” Hoffman asked in an email. “We think that the majority opinion should be seen as a raw exercise of judicial power because the conservatives on the Court had the votes. The good news is that the majority went out of its way to point out that it was not altering Miranda or post-Miranda case law so hopefully the impact of the decision will be limited. It is a shame, though, that someone in Mr. Tekoh’s position may be denied a remedy for the injuries he suffered because of police misconduct and the violation of this constitutional rule.”

Roman Martinez, an attorney with Latham & Watkins representing Vega, praised the court’s ruling, saying his client should not be punished for his good-faith effort to investigate a crime.

“As the Court explained, the landmark Miranda decision establishes an important prophylactic rule protecting the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination,” Martinez said in a statement. “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.”

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