By Lisa Soronen
The question in Vega v. Tekoh is whether a police officer can be sued for money damages for failing to provide a Miranda rights warning.
Terrance Tekoh was tried for unlawful sexual penetration. At trial, he introduced evidence that his confession was coerced and a jury found him not guilty. Tekoh then sued the officer who questioned him, Deputy Carlos Vega, under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, claiming Vega violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by not advising him of his Miranda rights.
Section 1983 allows people to sue government officials who subjected them to constitutional violations for money damages. States and local governments generally pay money damages awarded.
The 9th Circuit held Tekoh could bring a Section 1983 case.
According to the 9th Circuit, following Miranda, there was much debate over whether Miranda warnings were “constitutionally required.” In Dickerson v. United States (2000), the Supreme Court held that Congress could not overrule Miranda via a federal statute that provided confessions were admissible as long as they were voluntarily made, regardless of whether Miranda warnings had been provided. Miranda, the Supreme Court reasoned, was “a constitutional decision.”
According to the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court has subsequently “muddied” the waters since Dickerson. But since Dickerson, only fewer than five justices have said money damages aren’t available for Miranda rights violations.
So, according to the 9th Circuit: “Dickerson strongly supports Tekoh's argument that a plaintiff may bring a § 1983 claim predicated on a Miranda violation when the un-Mirandized statement is used against him in criminal proceedings. Section 1983 permits suits for damages to vindicate ‘rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.’ Because Dickerson made clear that the right of a criminal defendant against having an un-Mirandized statement introduced in the prosecution's case in chief is indeed a right secured by the Constitution, we conclude that Tekoh has a claim that his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was violated.”
The International Municipal Lawyers Association filed a brief asking the court to decide this case explaining a remedy exists for failing to provide Miranda warnings—“the exclusion of the resulting statements in any subsequent criminal trial.”
If the Supreme Court holds that Miranda Section 1983 cases may be brought, states and local governments will face increased money damages. Countless polices officers must decide daily whether Miranda warnings are required. When a person is “in police custody” isn’t a bright-line rule. So, lawsuits over a failure to give a Miranda warning may be quite common.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.