Supreme Court revisits decades-old Miranda rights precedent

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The Supreme Court revisited its 56-year-old precedent, Miranda v. Arizona, at an April 20 hearing as justices and attorneys sparred over the extent to which the landmark decision protects criminal defendants and provides a basis for post-trial litigation by acquitted defendants.

The specific issue in Vega v. Tekoh, court file 21-499, an appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, is the following question: When an arresting officer fails to provide a criminal defendant with the warnings required by the Miranda decision, can that defendant file a federal civil rights lawsuit based solely on the failure to provide the warnings?

Law enforcement officer Carlos Vega arrested Terence Tekoh in 2014 on suspicion that he had sexually assaulted a patient at a Los Angeles medical facility where he worked. A criminal court jury acquitted Tekoh. Tekoh sued Vega, noting that the law enforcement officer had failed to provide a so-called Miranda warning to him before he offered what he later characterized as a false confession.

In the lawsuit, the trial court held that Miranda-related violations aren’t enough on their own to justify lawsuits against arresting officers. The often-reversed 9th Circuit overturned the trial court, and Vega filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.

According to Vega’s petition (pdf) filed with the Supreme Court, the court’s landmark 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona is a “prophylactic” rule protecting the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

A prophylactic rule “is a judicially crafted rule that overprotects a constitutional right, and gives more protection than such right actually deserves or requires,” one reference website states. “This is done in order to safeguard that particular constitutional right or to improve detection of violations of that right.”

The rule generally prevents criminal trial courts from accepting as evidence against a criminal defendant any self-incriminating statement made by that defendant while he’s in custody, unless the defendant first receives certain warnings spelled out in the Miranda decision. The Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, provides a damages remedy for deprivations of any right secured by the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court on April 20, Vega’s attorney, Roman Martinez, said the 9th Circuit erred by extending Miranda into the realm of civil rights litigation, a move he said conflicts with “settled precedent and sound policy.”

Miranda is merely “a judicially crafted prophylactic rule, and the violation of such a rule doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of any person,” according to Martinez.

Critics have long decried Miranda as a judicial invention outside the U.S. Constitution, yet the late conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist upheld Miranda.

Justice Elena Kagan said Rehnquist “understood that Miranda had come to mean something extremely important in the way people understood the law and the way people understood the Constitution” and that weakening the ruling could weaken the judiciary.

Martinez scoffed at the suggestion that ruling in favor of his client would undermine Miranda, referring to the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Chavez v. Martinez, in which a court plurality, including Rehnquist, agreed that running afoul of Miranda isn’t a violation of constitutional rights.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the plurality opinion in question, told the attorney that he “couldn’t get a majority,” and said he didn’t “know how much that does for you.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, who was a clerk for Rehnquist, defended Miranda, asking Tekoh’s attorney, Paul Hoffman, why the right it protects isn’t “one secured by the Constitution?”

Rehnquist was “somebody careful with his words—he didn’t say Miranda is in the Constitution. He talked about constitutional underpinnings, constitutional basis,” according to Roberts.

The Biden administration has sided with Vega, urging a reversal of the 9th Circuit.

Attorney Vivek Suri of the U.S. Department of Justice said Miranda “recognized a constitutional right, but it’s a trial right concerning the exclusion of evidence at a criminal trial. It isn’t a substantive right to receive the Miranda warnings themselves.”

“A police officer who fails to provide the Miranda warnings accordingly doesn’t himself violate the constitutional right, and he also isn’t legally responsible for any violation that might occur later at the trial,” Suri said.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared April 20, 2022, in The Epoch Times. It was updated April 21, 2022.