San Francisco Chronicle
The Supreme Court lessened the impact of its landmark Miranda ruling Thursday, saying that while police must still advise suspects of their right to remain silent and consult a lawyer, they cannot be sued for damages for failing to do so. The court ruled 5-4 in 1966 that the constitutional rights to legal representation and against self-incrimination barred prosecutors from using evidence of statements by defendants who had not been advised of their rights while in police custody.
In now-familiar language, officers must advise anyone they have detained or arrested that “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
The court has rejected several attempts to reverse the ruling, striking down a federal law in 2000 that would have overturned Miranda. And lower courts, including the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, have allowed damage suits against officers whose failure to give Miranda warnings led to convictions and prison sentences or other harm to defendants.
But in a case from Los Angeles, the court’s conservative majority said Thursday that a Miranda warning, while necessary to protect a suspect’s constitutional rights, does not amount to a constitutional right by itself, and therefore is not grounds for a suit against an officer who fails to issue the warning.
In the 6-3 ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said the Miranda decision found the warnings necessary to protect constitutional rights, but did not say they were constitutionally required. He noted that the court had narrowed the scope of the ruling in 1971, by allowing prosecutors to use “non-Mirandized” statements from defendants to contradict testimony they later gave at trial, and again in 1974, by letting prosecutors use those statements to find additional evidence they could present to a jury.
“A violation of Miranda does not necessarily constitute a violation of the Constitution,” Alito wrote. “We see no justification for expanding Miranda to confer a right to sue” under a federal law allowing damage claims for violations of constitutional rights.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas joined Alito’s opinion. In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the court’s ruling in 2000 that left the earlier decision intact had described Miranda warnings as a right protected by the Constitution.
Thursday’s decision “strips individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda,” said Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. She said the ruling leaves individuals without any compensation for the harm they suffered from wrongful admission of evidence, including years in prison in some cases.
The case involved Terence Tekoh, a nursing aide at a Los Angeles hospital, who was accused by a patient of sexual assault. Questioned by Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega, who did not issue a Miranda warning, Tekoh eventually issued a written apology for allegedly touching the patient’s genitals. The evidence was introduced at his trial, but a jury acquitted him.
Tekoh then sued Vega and others for damages, but a jury found in the officer’s favor after a federal judge refused to tell jurors the officer had violated Tekoh’s constitutional rights. The Ninth Circuit court overruled the judge and ordered a new trial, but the Supreme Court granted review of the county’s appeal, and left the jury’s verdict intact Thursday.
President Biden’s Justice Department sided with the officer and took part in oral arguments in April.
Paul Hoffman, Tekoh’s lawyer, said the ruling does not eliminate all grounds for a suit against officers for improper interrogation. Although a Miranda violation will no longer be the basis for damages, Tekoh and those in his situation can still try to prove they were coerced into confessing, said Hoffman, who will make another effort to get a new trial.
But Charles Weisselberg, a UC Berkeley law professor, warned that eliminating suits for Miranda violations would invite police to question suspects without any warnings. After the California Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that a recently approved ballot measure, sponsored by prosecutors, allowed juries to hear evidence obtained without Miranda warnings, he said, police statewide were trained to ignore the warnings, a practice that ended only when the Ninth Circuit authorized damage suits in 2000.
If the Supreme Court accepts the prosecution’s argument in Tekoh’s case, Weisselberg said in a court filing for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, ” California’s repudiated past will become the nation’s future.”
The case is Vega v. Tekoh, 21-499.
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