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Supreme Court Holds Damages Unavailable for Miranda Violation

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Oct 17, 2022

In Vega v. Tekoh, the United States Supreme Court took under consideration whether a police officer's failure to provide required Miranda warnings rose to a damages action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which says a federal cause of action for “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 

In a 6-3 decision with the majority opinion written by Justice Alito, the Court confirmed the requirement that police must give a suspect in custody the infamous Miranda warnings – that the “suspect has the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present for questioning.”

Ninth Circuit Court

It's designed to protect the Fifth Amendment right against coerced confessions. Further, the Court found that while Miranda violations can rise to suppression, the remedy of §1983 monetary damages is unavailable. 

Tekoh was a healthcare worker in a California hospital and was accused of inappropriately touching the genitals of a female patient.  Vega was the investigating officer who obtained a written confession from him. 

On appeal, both parties agreed that Tekoh was put through custodial interrogation within the Miranda meaning, but Vega didn't give the required warnings.

Tekoh's confession was presented at two criminal trials. One was a mistrial, and the other was an acquittal. He sued Vega and other defendants under §1983. 

Appeal to the Ninth Circuit

After a civil trial, the judge said he improperly instructed the jury.  Before the second trial, Tekoh requested that the jury be instructed to find a Fifth Amendment violation for failing to read his required Miranda warnings. 

The district court declined but told the jury that the Fifth Amendment was violated only if his confession was coerced.  The jury returned a verdict for Vega. Next, Tekoh appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the decision, saying the use of an un-Mirandized statement against a defendant in a criminal proceeding violated the Fifth Amendment, and they supported a § 1983 claim. 

Vega was denied en banc review in the Ninth Circuit and petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari.

The dispute between the majority and dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court shows the unique constitutional status of the Miranda decision.  There is no textual basis in the Fifth Amendment that requires the police to provide warnings to suspects in custody about their constitutional rights. 

Instead, it prohibits coerced self-incrimination.  However, the Court ruled that other protections should be required to vindicate this right. 

As the majority opinion says, these warnings have consistently been referred to as “prophylactic rules” and are not required by Fifth Amendment itself. 

The Fifth Amendment

The majority highlight this point by noting inconsistencies that can't be reconciled if the Fifth Amendment compels Miranda warnings.

Fifth Amendment

First, many un-Mirandized confessions are voluntary but are nevertheless excluded from evidence.  For example, a statement obtained in violation of Miranda could be used to impeach a defendant at trial, whereas a true involuntary confession cannot. 

The fruits, such as additional evidence obtained by police as a result of first wrongfully getting the defendant's statement, of an un-Mirandized confession can be introduced against a defendant, but involuntary information may not.

A failure to give Miranda warnings could be excused by a need to address a public safety concern, but getting an involuntary statement is never permissible.

According to the majority, the differences could not exist if Miranda were just a restatement of the Fifth Amendment's protections.  Thus, they ruled that excluding un-Mirandized statements at trial is a complete and sufficient remedy and that §1983 damages are unavailable.

Dickerson v. the United States

Crucial to the dissent's argument is the Court's ruling in Dickerson v. the United States, which struck down a federal statute regarding the Miranda decision.  Dickerson held that Miranda was a constitutional “rule” that sets forth “concrete constitutional guidelines” and establishes a constitutional “minimum.” 

In other words, Dickerson used every formulation except the one that could have resolved Tekoh's case by saying that Miranda was a constitutional right.

Do the dissenting judges ask under what authority could federal courts enforce the Miranda guarantee against state courts in habeas proceedings if not through the Fifth Amendment? 

The dissent found that Miranda creates a constitutional right, and violating that right gives rise to a § 1983 cause of action.

Dickerson v. the United States

The majority had their own opinion, based on Dickerson, on the question of how Miranda can be adequately enforced against the states if not through the Fourteenth Amendment,

In Dickerson, the court ruled that a judicially-created prophylactic rule designed to protect federal constitutional rights takes on the status of United States law and is therefore enforceable against the states under the Supremacy Clause. 

The majority cites numerous criticisms.  In this sense, Miranda, as interpreted in Dickerson and now in Tekoh, is very unusual in constitutional law. 

It is a judge-made rule that is more protective than constitutionally required as a right, enforceable against the states by federal courts, impervious to attempts to overrule it, and requires suppression of evidence where violated, but not a damages action under § 1983 since it's not a constitutional right.

Despite the preceding, no member of the Court appears to have any desire to overrule or seriously reconsider Miranda, which is a testament to how large it looms in the American consciousness. If they know nothing else about constitutional law, many people understand the primary substance of the warnings that police must read to suspects. 

Most, notwithstanding the Court's repeated statements to the contrary, will continue to believe these warnings are “Miranda rights.” Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. You can reach us by phone or using the contact form.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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