Is the US Supreme Court’s opinion in Vega v. Tekoh “the death of Miranda?”
It is not the death of Miranda, although it could be an ominous sign of what the Court is planning in future appellate opinions. Tekoh does not “do away with” Miranda rights, and the result the Court reached was probably correct.
It’s how they reached their result that has people concerned. Let’s look at this case – what it was about, what the Court got wrong, what the Court got right, and why it has people claiming that it is the “death of Miranda.”
Vega v. Tekoh: What was the Case About?
Tekoh is a nursing assistant who was accused of sexually assaulting a patient at the medical center where he worked. Vega is the sheriff’s deputy who interrogated Tekoh about the alleged assault – at the medical center.
Tekoh gave Vega a written statement apologizing for touching the patient’s genitals, he was charged with sexual assault, and then the statement was used against him at trial. The statement was used against him at trial because the trial court held that the statement was not taken in violation of Miranda – a finding that was not reversed at any point in the trial or on appeal.
Did the statement mean that he was guilty of the sexual assault? Apparently not, because he was acquitted by the jury at his trial. He then sued Vega under 42 USC §1983 for violating his constitutional rights – specifically, for using his non-Mirandized statement against him at the criminal trial.
The case we are looking at, Vega v. Tekoh, is not an appeal from his conviction at trial. It is an appeal by the sheriff’s deputy from the civil case where Tekoh sued, because the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Tekoh could sue for the Miranda violation that, according to the trial court in the criminal case, didn’t happen.
Vega then appealed to the US Supreme Court, which reversed and held that no one can sue for a Miranda violation under §1983…
What was the Court’s Holding?
The US Supreme Court’s holding was that no person can bring a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C § 1983 for a violation of their Miranda rights.
They did not reverse Miranda v. Arizona.
They did not (yet) find that police can use statements taken in violation of Miranda at a defendant’s trial. Miranda v. Arizona remains mostly intact, and the exclusionary rule remains intact, but now, if police violate your constitutional rights by failing to comply with Miranda, you cannot sue them under §1983.
The Court was Right… So Why Doesn’t the Opinion Make Sense?
The result reached by the Supreme Court was probably correct. Under the facts of this case, Tekoh should not have been permitted to bring a lawsuit for violation of his civil rights. Because there was no violation of his civil rights.
So, what’s the problem?
The Court ignored what could have been and should have been a very simple analysis as to why Tekoh did not have a §1983 claim under the facts of his case. As far as we can tell from the facts included in the Supreme Court’s opinion, there was no Miranda violation…
If there was no Miranda violation, there was no deprivation of his constitutional rights; therefore, there was no basis for a 1983 action.
The trial court in Tekoh’s criminal trial found that there was no Miranda violation.
Presumably, the statement was admitted into evidence because the questioning took place at the medical center where Tekoh worked – not in a police car, not at the police station, not at the jail, and before Tekoh was charged with the crime.
If the suspect is not in custody, there is no requirement to read Miranda warnings…
The Supreme Court could have easily dispensed with this case based on the fact that there was no Miranda violation. Or, they could have just found that res judicata barred the defendant turned plaintiff from relitigating the issue.
The criminal trial court found that there was no Miranda violation. No appellate court overturned that decision (nor could they have, since Tekoh was acquitted). Tekoh was present at the trial, had the opportunity to litigate the issue, and did in fact litigate the issue, resulting in the trial court admitting the statement into evidence because there was no Miranda violation.
The Death of Miranda: Not this Time, But What’s Coming Next?
Without even discussing the fact that, on the record, there was no Miranda violation, the Court instead goes to great lengths to explain why a Miranda violation is not a constitutional violation. The analysis makes no sense, ignores prior Supreme Court opinions, and explains that:
- A Miranda violation, where police violate a suspect’s Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights by interrogating the suspect without informing them that they have the right to counsel and the right to stop answering questions, is not a constitutional violation; therefore
- There is no deprivation of constitutional rights, and no person can sue the police for violating the requirements of Miranda.
No one can sue.
If there is an actual Miranda violation, you cannot sue. If the Miranda violation results in a wrongful conviction, you cannot sue. If the trial court in the criminal case finds that this was the most egregious Miranda violation they have ever seen, and dismisses the criminal charges for the misconduct, you cannot sue.
Why did they do that?
The obvious answer, in the context of this case, is they were taking the opportunity to shut down one of the very few avenues that citizens have to sue the police when they have been wronged.
That’s bad enough – on the surface, it appears that they misstated the Court’s prior cases (compare the Court’s discussion of Oregon v. Elstad – a 1985 case, with the US Supreme Court’s opinion in Missouri v. Seibert – a 2004 case that the Tekoh Court ignores) and to reach the absurd result that the rights protected in Miranda v. Arizona are not constitutional rights, so they can prevent defendants from filing lawsuits against the police.
What’s more insidious is the effect this can have on future cases. The Court has now held that Miranda is not a constitutional rule, and a Miranda violation is not a constitutional violation. That’s just one step away from 1) finding that a Miranda violation does not require suppression of the statement, and 2) doing away with Miranda altogether.
So, although this case is not the death of Miranda, it may be the death throes as Miranda is slowly strangled.
If you have been charged with a crime in SC, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your case immediately.