Law enforcement officers who fail to provide criminal suspects with Miranda warnings prior to questioning cannot be subjected to civil lawsuits for their omissions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
Justices determined by a 6-3 vote that receiving Miranda warnings — which notify individuals taken into custody of their rights to remain silent, speak with an attorney and ask for that attorney to be present during interactions with police — is not technically a protected constitutional right.
The court’s classification means that individuals deprived of their Miranda warnings before criminal interrogations take place will not have a foundation to bring legal claims that allege their civil rights were violated after the fact. It effectively protects police officers against civil litigation while also limiting individual protections against self-incrimination.
“A violation of Miranda does not necessarily constitute a violation of the Constitution,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in an opinion reflecting the court’s conservative majority. In light of that, Alito said such a violation could not “authorize a civil rights suit against a police officer.”
Although Thursday’s decision safeguards law enforcement officials from civil lawsuits over Miranda rights, it also ruled that a suspect’s comments cannot be used to incriminate them during a trial if those comments are collected before they receive the customary warnings. The court said this provision should serve as a “complete and sufficient remedy” for an officer’s violations.
The ruling came on a California case called Vega vs. Tekoh, which started in 2014 when Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega questioned a medical worker, Terence Tekoh, accused of sexual assault before providing Tekoh with Miranda warnings.
Tekoh alleged that Vega refused his requests to speak with an attorney, prevented him from leaving a private room where the interrogation suddenly happened, and forced him to write a confession. He was ultimately found not guilty of the crime, but went on to sue Vega in federal court for the Miranda violation.
Three justices dissented, arguing that the court’s decision could lead to more instances of criminal suspects being forced or pressured to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, despite its clause blocking incriminating comments from use in court if Miranda warnings weren’t read.
“Today, the Court strips individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Though a defendant could challenge the use of their statements in court, “sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed. And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison,” Kagan continued. “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?”
Thursday’s decision is the latest Supreme Court ruling that prevents individuals from seeking civil damages from law enforcement officers after a procedural violation. Earlier this month, the court ruled in another 6-3 vote to shield border patrol agents from civil litigation brought over claims related to use of excessive force and unlawful retaliation during an arrest.
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