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Tantamount to nothing: Miranda “rights” can(not) be wronged

On Thursday, the Supreme Court released its opinion in Vega v. Tekoh, in which a 6-3 court held that a violation of Miranda v. Arizona does not provide a basis for civil damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The majority’s decision both hobbles Miranda’s enforceability and unceremoniously strips the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination of Miranda’s prophylactic protection, heretofore regarded as criminal procedure canon in American law. Specifically, the Vega majority held that governmental violation of Miranda – an undisputed “constitutional decision” that adopted a “constitutional rule” that is “constitutionally based” and has “constitutional underpinnings” – is not a violation of the Constitution. In other words: The government can violate Miranda without the threat of civil penalty, as the only remedy to right the government’s wrong is an evidentiary fix at trial: suppression of any confession obtained in violation of Miranda. Accordingly, Miranda is only an evidentiary trial rule, not a substantive constitutional right.

During a March 2014 custodial interrogation of Terence Tekoh at his workplace regarding sexual assault allegations, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega failed to give Tekoh a Miranda warning. Vega emerged from that interrogation with Tekoh’s handwritten statement that offered an apology for inappropriately touching the complainant. Tekoh was subsequently prosecuted for the alleged sexual assault, and at Tekoh’s criminal trial, the government introduced his un-Mirandized statement. The jury found Tekoh not guilty.

Tekoh then sued Vega and other defendants for civil damages, alleging that, per Miranda, the custodial interrogation violated his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with Tekoh and held that the government’s use of the un-Mirandized statement provided a basis upon which Tekoh could seek civil damages under Section 1983. 

The Supreme Court rejected the 9th Circuit’s decision, characterizing it as an “extension” of Miranda and “wrong.” The court’s opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito (and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett), immediately struck an almost incredulous tone at the notion that Miranda ever provided suspects anything other than prophylactic procedures for in-custody interrogations: “At no point in the [Miranda] opinion did the Court state that a violation of its new rules constituted a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.” Nor did the court’s post-Miranda decisions characterize it as anything other than a Fifth Amendment safeguard, i.e., additional procedural protection that served the prophylactic function of safeguarding “that right during custodial interrogation.” Miranda never possessed nor acquired the stature – and therefore, protection — of a constitutional right; its violation is not tantamount to a violation of the Fifth Amendment; it is therefore not remedied as a right.

Further, the majority noted that had the Miranda court intended to create a constitutional right versus a prophylactic rule, it would have announced Miranda thusly. That court knew how to use its words, and the words used were not “constitutional right.”

Additionally and since Miranda, the court has “repeatedly described the rules it adopted as ‘prophylactic,’” distinguishing between a constitutional violation and a violation of Miranda.

But wait: Can civil damages arise pursuant to the portion of Section 1983 that allows people to sue state actors for “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the … laws?”

Interestingly, the majority noted that they can. However, even if Miranda implicates Section 1983 as a remedy, a successful plaintiff must persuasively argue that Miranda “should be expanded to include the right to sue for damages.” From where Alito sits, “except in unusual circumstances,” the cost/benefit analysis does not augur in the plaintiff’s favor, as “[a]llowing the victim of a Miranda violation to sue a police officer for damages under § 1983 would have little additional deterrent value” and “the costs would be substantial.” “What costs?” you may ask. Why, judicial economy. Disallowing the creation of unnecessary friction between federal and state courts. Essentially, procedural annoyances, which create a headache for the judiciary. Here, again, Tekoh loses. So, exclusion of the un-Mirandized statement at trial is Tekoh’s sole remedy, as Miranda “safeguards ‘a fundamental trial right’” and “except in unusual circumstances, the ‘exclusion of unwarned statements’ should be ‘a complete and sufficient remedy.” 

The dissenting justices — Elena Kagan, joined by Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor – seemed confounded by the majority’s opinion, given that the court’s members all “basically agree” with Miranda’s legal premises: that it grants a right secured by the Constitution; that it “grants the defendant a legally enforceable entitlement – in a word, a right – to have his confession excluded;” that it is a decision of constitutional origin, constitutionally-based, and sets forth constitutional guidelines, via a constitutionally-derived rule that “sets a ‘constitutional minimum’” regarding “a corresponding” right “that cannot be ‘overruled by’ any ‘Act of Congress.’” Thus, the issue before the court – whether Miranda is a right secured by the Constitution — should have been answered in the affirmative, given that Miranda, per Dickerson v. United States, is “set in constitutional stone.” 

Reminding the majority of why Miranda is an iconic, venerated case that represents one of the highest watermarks of American constitutional law, Kagan noted that Miranda “responded to problems stemming from the interrogation of suspects ‘incommunicado’ and ‘in a police-dominated atmosphere.” The landmark decision afforded “protections to suspects who are interrogated by police while in custody.” At the time Miranda was decided, the court was concerned about shockingly violent police practices (which the Miranda court cited in its decision): beating, hanging, whipping, and the infamous police procedure known as the “third degree,” all of which compelled suspects’ in-custody confessions via torture. 

Accordingly, the constitutional rule of Miranda provides the correlative, judicially-enforceable right to exclude un-Mirandized statements from the prosecutor’s case: “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,” Section 1983, Kagan wrote. That right is sufficiently specific to create “‘obligations binding on [a] governmental unit’ that an individual may ask the judiciary to enforce.” The majority’s decision to the contrary “strips individuals of the ability to seek a remedy” for Miranda, leaving those violated without redress, “a vital component of any scheme for vindicating cherished constitutional guarantees.”

In a not-even-partially-veiled swipe at the court’s recent and unrelenting willingness to hobble constitutional rights by gutting their available remedies, Kagan lamented the decision. Miranda, one of the increasingly few cultural and court canons that binds us, has been injured, perhaps fatally. What it stood to protect, the Fifth Amendment, now stands before us, newly naked, stripped of its heretofore powerful prophylactic. And in too many quarters, its rules are meant to be broken. 

Cases: Vega v. Tekoh

Recommended Citation: Lenese Herbert, Tantamount to nothing: Miranda “rights” can(not) be wronged, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 27, 2022, 11:57 AM),