The Nation’s highest Court has issued a number of momentous decisions during this term, but one ruling risks slipping through the cracks of the media and is an important one for the country’s police force.
For more than half a century, nearly every American with television has been able to recite the words that, under the Constitution, protect their right not to incriminate themselves under government interrogation.
“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 the presence of an attorney, and if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you prior to any questioning.”
These Miranda warnings, mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in that eponymous 1966 case litigated by the ACLU, form part of the very fabric of law enforcement’s relationship with the public.
Today, in Vega v. Tekoh, the court backtracked substantially on its Miranda promise. In Vega, the court held 6-3 (over an excellent dissent by Justice Elena Kagan) that an individual who is denied Miranda warnings and whose compelled statements are introduced against them in a criminal trial cannot sue the police officer who violated their rights, even where a criminal jury finds them not guilty of any crime.
By denying people whose rights have violated the ability to seek redress under our country’s most important civil rights statute, the court has further widened the gap between the guarantees found in the Bill of Rights and the people’s ability to hold government officials accountable for violating them.
Leading the majority, Justice Samuel Alito stated in his opinion that “a violation of Miranda is not itself a violation of the Fifth Amendment,” and added “we see no justification for expanding Miranda to confer a right to sue” under Section 1983.
Here’s what Alito wrote:
“Miranda did not hold that a violation of the rules it established necessarily constitutes a Fifth Amendment violation, and it is difficult to see how it could have held otherwise,”Alito wrote.
“For one thing, it is easy to imagine many situations in which an un-Mirandized suspect in custody may make self-incriminating statements without any hint of compulsion.”
“In addition,” Alito added, “the warnings that the Court required included components, such as notification of the right to have retained or appointed counsel present during questioning, that do not concern self-incrimination per se but are instead plainly designed to safeguard that right. And the same is true of Miranda’s detailed rules about the waiver of the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.”
The Western Journal reported:
The decision reversed a lower court’s rule in favor of the hospital worker and remanded the case back to the lower court to revisit.
The dissent was written by Justice Elena Kagan who claimed that the ruling might make it harder for suspects to pursue legal remedies if they feel their rights were violated during an arrest and interrogation.
Here’s what Kagan wrote:
“The majority observes that defendants may still seek ‘the suppression at trial of statements obtained’ in violation of Miranda’s procedures. … But sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed,” Kagan wrote.
“And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison. He may succeed, on appeal or in habeas, in getting the conviction reversed. But then, what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered? The point of §1983 is to provide such redress — because a remedy ‘is a vital component of any scheme for vindicating cherished constitutional guarantees.’”
“The majority here, as elsewhere, injures the right by denying the remedy,” she concluded.
The dissent has it exactly right. While the court’s decision does not as a formal matter reduce the police officer’s obligation to issue Miranda warnings — or what individuals in police custody should do or say (or not do and not say) — it cuts off a critical means by which people whose rights have been violated can actually vindicate the promise of those rights.
In that sense, it’s a sad day for Miranda, the Bill of Rights, and the most basic conception of accountability.