The Supreme Court ruled today, 6–3, that if a police officer fails to inform you of your right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination when you’re suspected of a crime, you can’t sue under federal law as a violation of your civil rights.
To be clear, the Court isn’t overturning Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 Supreme Court ruling that determined that it’s a violation of a suspect’s Fifth Amendment rights for police to interrogate him or her about a crime without informing them they have the right to remain silent and the right to request an attorney. But what the Court ruled today is that if and when this right is violated, people can’t turn to Section 1983 of the U.S. code and file a civil action lawsuit against the police officer or law enforcement agency and seek redress or damages.
Today’s ruling, Vega v. Tekoh, involved an investigation of sexual assault at a Los Angeles medical center in 2014. Terence Tekoh worked at the medical center and was interrogated by L.A. County Deputy Carlos Vega. Vega did not tell Tekoh about his Miranda rights and extracted a written confession. This confession was admitted into evidence in court, and a judge determined that his Miranda rights weren’t violated because he wasn’t in custody when he confessed. Even so, the first case ended in a mistrial, and then Tekoh was ultimately found not guilty in a second trial. Tekoh then sued using Section 1983 against Vega and others seeking damages for the violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The case wound its way all the way up to the Supreme Court to hear in April. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Cato Institute together submitted an amicus brief to the Court supporting the position that Vega could be held liable.
But in a pure ideological split, the Court today determined that a violation of the Miranda rules does not provide a basis for a civil rights lawsuit under Section 1983. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.
Essentially, Alito’s opinion says that the purpose of Miranda is to serve as a safeguard against compelled self-incrimination by police or prosecutors. It was not intended to establish that it was inherently a Fifth Amendment violation if somebody voluntarily confesses or self-incriminates himself or herself prior to or absent of a Miranda warning. The Miranda warning is intended to be a “prophylactic,” to safeguard against potential deliberate abuse. Alito writes:
Miranda did not hold that a violation of the rules it established necessarily constitute a Fifth Amendment violation, and it is difficult to see how it could have held otherwise. For one thing, it is easy to imagine many situations in which an un-Mirandized suspect in custody may make self-incriminating statements without any hint of compulsion. In addition, the warnings that the Court required included components, such as notification of the right to have retained or appointed counsel present during questioning, that do not concern self-incrimination per se but are instead plainly designed to safeguard that right. And the same is true of Miranda‘s detailed rules about the waiver of the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
Alito concludes that because a violation of Miranda is not automatically a violation of the Fifth Amendment, there is no justification to permit a civil rights lawsuit. The opinion reverses a judgment in Tekoh’s favor and remands it back to the lower courts to revisit.
The dissent is written by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Kagan observes the obvious in her dissent, that this ruling will make it harder for defendants to pursue legal remedies when their rights are violated:
The majority observes that defendants may still seek “the suppression at trial of statements obtained” in violation of Miranda‘s procedures. … But sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed. And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison. He may succeed, on appeal or in habeas, in getting the conviction reversed. But then, what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered? The point of §1983 is to provide such redress—because a remedy “is a vital component of any scheme for vindicating cherished constitutional guarantees.” … The majority here, as elsewhere, injures the right by denying the remedy.
Reason‘s Billy Binion noted earlier this week that the Supreme Court had declined to take on cases where federal officers had been granted civil liability against lawsuits when they violate the rights of citizens and even commit crimes in the line of duty. This case continues this trend—the Supreme Court recognizes that these constitutional rights exist, but by shielding officers from liability for violating these rights, the Court undermines the necessary tools to make sure police take them seriously.