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From the State and Local Legal Center

In Vega v. Tekoh, the U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 that police officers can’t be sued for money damages for failing to recite Miranda rights.

US Supreme CourtTerrance Tekoh was tried for unlawful sexual penetration. The parties disagree about whether Deputy Carlos Vega used “coercive investigatory techniques” to obtain a confession from Tekoh, but they agree Vega didn’t inform Tekoh of his Miranda rights.

His confession was admitted into evidence and Tekoh was acquitted. Tekoh sued 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 for money damages who subjected them to the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” States and local governments generally pay money damages awarded.

In an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court held failing to recite Miranda doesn’t provide a basis for a claim under §1983 because the failure isn’t a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The Fifth Amendment states “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Per Supreme Court precedent, it “permits a person to refuse to testify against himself at a criminal trial in which he is a defendant” and “also ‘privileges him not to answer official questions put to him in any other proceeding, civil or criminal, formal or informal, where the answers might incriminate him in future criminal proceedings.’”

According to the court, “[i]n Miranda, the court concluded that additional procedural protections were necessary to prevent the violation of this important right when suspects who are in custody are interrogated by the police.” So, Miranda imposed a set of prophylactic rules. “At no point in the opinion did the court state that a violation of its new rules constituted a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. Instead, it claimed only that those rules were needed to safeguard that right during custodial interrogation.”

The court rejected Tekoh’s argument that Dickerson v. United States (2000) “upset the firmly established prior understanding of Miranda as a prophylactic decision.” In Dickerson, the court held that Congress couldn’t abrogate Miranda by statute because Miranda was a “constitutional decision” that adopted a “constitutional rule.” Despite the court using the term “constitutional decision” and “constitutional rule,” “the court made it clear that it was not equating a violation of the Miranda rules with an outright Fifth Amendment violation.”

Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, in dissent disagreed with the majority’s reading of Dickerson. “Dickerson v. United States tells us in no uncertain terms that Miranda is a ‘constitutional rule.’” “[O]nly one conclusion can follow—that Miranda’s protections are a “right[]” “secured by the Constitution” under Section 1983.

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief points out that if a police officer fails to provide a Miranda warning a remedy is available—the exclusion of the resulting statements in any subsequent criminal trial. Alito noted this in his opinion as well.

Harker Rhodes, Kirkland & Ellis, wrote the SLLC amicus brief which the following organizations joined: National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, International Municipal Lawyers Association, National Sheriffs’ Association, Major County Sheriffs of America, California State Association of Counties and the City of Chicago.  

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.