SCOTUS Grants Police Immunity for Miranda Violation

Scenes with handcuffed suspects being read Miranda warnings by police officers are such a staple of countless televised police dramas that you probably catch yourself reciting the litany alongside the actors. When police slip up and fail to read suspects their rights, a TV judge throws out the confession, leaving the prosecutor and police scrambling to find other evidence to aid in a conviction for the remainder of the runtime.

What you don't see portrayed on television after the confession being tossed is the newly released suspect conferring with a civil rights lawyer to file a lawsuit against the police who trampled their rights. In the real world, a lawsuit in civil court has historically been a method used to compensate people whose constitutional rights were violated by police.

Concerning the administration of Miranda warnings, that method is dead.

A recently released decision by the United States Supreme Court puts an end to using civil lawsuits for damages based on Miranda violations committed by police officers. According to the 6-3 ruling from the Court, failure to read someone their rights as required by the Miranda ruling may not be a violation of the person’s rights under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

What is Miranda?

The 1966 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda vs. Arizona addressed the rights of a person suspected of committing a crime subjected to custodial interrogation by law enforcement. The Fifth Amendment contains references to several rights, but the specific right the Court was asked to review in the context of a police interrogation was the protection against being “…compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

The Court in Miranda concluded that police and other government agents had an obligation to advise a person they intend to question regarding their right to remain silent, the consequences of not doing so, and their right to be represented by an attorney during questioning. After the Court’s decision, the remedy for violating the Miranda rules would be suppression of any incriminating statements, preventing prosecutors from using those statements to prove the charges against the person who made them.

Where do civil lawsuits enter the picture?

Federal law gives a person whose civil rights have been violated by an employee of the government, such as a police officer, the right to sue for damages. That legal actions has become known as a “1983 lawsuit” in reference to the applicable section of the law (42 U.S.C. §1983). People use that mechanism to sue agents of the government who violate their constitutional rights, including violations of the Miranda rules. One such lawsuit for damages against a sheriff’s deputy came before the Supreme Court this year, resulting in this new development.

Deputy Carlos Vega of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department interrogated Terrence Tekoh, suspected of sexually assaulting a patient at a medical center where Tekoh worked. It was undisputed that Vega did not advise Tekoh of his Miranda rights before questioning him and eliciting a confession, which prosecutors used at trial in an effort to convict Tekoh of the crime. Nevertheless, the criminal trial concluded with jurors voting not to convict the defendant.

Lawyers for Tekoh filed a 1983 lawsuit claiming the deputy violated his constitutional rights by not giving Takoh the warnings required by the Miranda decision. A civil court was asked to compensate him by awarding monetary damages.

The Supreme Court ruled that a violation of the Fifth Amendment would be actionable through a 1983 lawsuit. However, it agreed that dismissal of the lawsuit filed on behalf of Tekoh was justified because the fact that he did not receive the warnings required under Miranda was not necessarily a violation of a constitutional right. The deputy may have violated the holding in Miranda, but he did not infringe the suspect’s Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to give testimony against himself.

How did the Court arrive at its decision?

The Court ruled that the warnings required through Miranda did not confer upon a suspect a constitutionally protected right. Reading a suspect their rights merely serves to protect against a suspect being compelled to give a statement that could be used against them at trial. Through the Court’s reasoning, the constitutional violation in Tekoh’s case was the use of the statement by prosecutors to prove their case and not the failure of the deputy to follow the rules required by Miranda.

Future of your rights

The Vega decision limits a criminal defendant’s remedy for statements made after a Miranda violation merely to objecting to the use of those statements at trial. If a judge does not suppress the statements and there is a conviction, an appeal is the only remedy now left to a defendant.

Another takeaway from the Vega decision is the importance of consulting with a criminal defense attorney before allowing yourself to be questioned by the police. The best protection against self-incrimination is to remain silent until your attorney determines what is best. As this new opinion demonstrates, if you are contacted or approached by law enforcement, DO NOT SPEAK without an attorney present to protect your (increasingly dissipating) rights.

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