On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will explore an issue that has lingered unanswered for decades: should it hold police accountable for failure to give “Miranda warnings” to suspects they want to question? That’s the topic of the only hearing tomorrow.
The “live” audio (no video) will be broadcast on the Quick Links on the Supreme Court’s homepage – supremecourt.gov – and at c-span.org/supremecourt and C-Span Now App.
Wednesday’s case: Vega v. Tekoh The hearing, scheduled for 70 minutes, will begin at 10 a.m.
Background: The Supreme Court a half-century ago was in the midst of a constitutional revolution, regularly expanding the constitutional rights of persons suspected or accused of crime. Almost certainly, the most famous decision of that era was issued 56 years ago: Miranda v. Arizona.
After a lengthy history of police using coercive tactics to get suspects to confess, the Court sought to put an end to that by creating what are popularly known as “Miranda rights.” Now entirely familiar not only in real life but common in police dramas on TV or in theaters, the procedure outlined by that decision required police to advise suspects being held that they have a right to remain silent, and that anything they say may be used against them at a trial. Without that warning, the officers could do no questioning.
No decision since then has ever suggested that the Court might overrule the Miranda decision, but two Justices – including one who is still serving, Clarence Thomas — called for that in an important decision in 2000 (Dickerson v. U.S.). The 7-to-2 majority rejected that idea, and went on to strike down a law passed by Congress that would have weakened the 1966 precedent. Justice Thomas has continued to press for limits on the Miranda decision, especially in rulings in 2003 and 2004, but his views have never been supported by a majority.
And, while the Court’s shifting membership over the decades has frequently disagreed over how to apply Miranda in specific factual scenarios, there has always been a majority for the notion that the warning requirement is based on the Constitution, the Fifth Amendment mandate that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”
The Court has long been divided over whether the 1966 created a new constitutional right – a right to the warning – or just a procedural rule on how to enforce the Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate. To this day, that remains in some doubt.
There also is another basic question about Miranda rights that has never been fully answered by a majority: how to cure a violation of the warning requirement – that is, a police officer fails to give the warnings, and the unwarned suspect confesses.
In general, such a confession cannot be used at a trial, but is that enough? Should the police officer be held accountable in some way? Is it sufficient that police departments train officers to give warnings, and enforce that with internal disciplinary rules?
That is the uncertainty the Court will encounter tomorrow, when it hears an appeal by a Los Angeles deputy sheriff, Carlos Vega. He faces the prospect of a trial seeking to hold him personally accountable, and subject to money damages that he would have to pay on his own, for an incident that occurred in March 2014.
Vega was called to a Los Angeles hospital to check out a report that an employee there, Terence B. Tekoh, had sexually assaulted a female patient. Vega took Tekoh into a private room and questioned him; Tekoh admitted that he had assaulted the patient after lifting her gown.
Tekoh was prosecuted twice for sexual assault, but the first trial ended without a verdict and he was found not guilty in the second. Tekoh then sued Vega, based upon an 1871 law that Congress passed originally to counter violence against black people by the Ku Klux Klan. The law, usually referred to simply as “Section 1983,” has had a modern revival as part of the civil rights revolution.
It is aimed at government officials, including police officers, at the state and local level. It permits lawsuits directly against an officer who is acting under state law and deprives a person of any constitutional or legal right. (For federal officers, such as FBI agents, who violate a person’s rights, the Supreme Court has created a limited right under the Constitution to sue them for damages. That is not at issue in this case.)
Tekoh’s lawsuit asked that Vega be found to have violated his rights under the Fifth Amendment and the Miranda ruling and that he be required to personally pay money damages to Tekoh. In separate verdicts, two federal court juries decided that Tekoh’s rights had not been violated by the officer’s failure to warn him of his rights before he confessed.
A federal appeals court, however, ruled that Section 1983 allows an officer to be sued for damages for failure to give the required warnings, whether or not the incident involved coercion by the officer.
Deputy Vega appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that lawsuits like Tekoh’s are frequently filed and that lower courts are widely split for and against allowing such claims. The Biden Administration’s Justice Department has entered the case on Vega’s side, arguing flatly that Section 1983 cannot be used against police officers for Miranda violations. The place to challenge those violations, the Department contends, is during a criminal trial, not in a civil lawsuit for damages.
The question before the Court: Does an 1871 civil rights law create a right to sue a state or local police officer for money damages for violating a person’s rights under the decision in Miranda v. Arizona?
Significance: This case could be of profound importance in an age when police misconduct is a searing issue across the nation. At all levels of government, there is lively debate about what to do about the problem as a matter of public policy. Deputy Vega’s claim, if successful, could take away at least one potentially important remedy – a lawsuit holding officers personally accountable, and facing money damages, at least in cases where police obtain a confession of crime by a suspect without Miranda warnings.
It seems clear as a matter of fact that, despite the durable precedent of Miranda v. Arizona, police officers quite often question suspects without first warning them of their rights. That appears to have been confirmed by the frequency with which individuals have sued police, claiming Miranda violations.
The mere fact that the Court has now agreed to review this case, with the aim of settling the controversy, suggests strongly that there may now be a majority to explicitly insulate police from that kind of legal accountability.
Moreover, Justice Thomas remains on the Court, and has demonstrated his willingness to continue to question the Miranda precedent’s legitimacy. More significantly, though, is that there is now a strong, conservative majority of six Justices, and that may embolden Thomas to press even further. The fact that the Justice Department appears now to be a legal ally of his on this controversy could be a further indication that Officer Vega and other police across the country could escape this kind of legal risk.
The Court will continue this round of hearings next Monday, opening the day with a case involving a public high school’s authority to forbid a coach from praying aloud after a game, surrounded by the players.