Even though the media attention around the Supreme Court since last week has justifiably focused on the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the expansion of protections of Second Amendment rights, one case that flew under the radar is important to America’s police departments and officers.
On Thursday in Vega v. Tekoh, the court ruled that officers are not subject to being sued over irregularities in providing Miranda warnings. Those Miranda rights that begin, “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can be held against you in a court of law,” are familiar to everyone who has watched a crime show on television since the 1966 Supreme Court ruling in Miranda v. Arizona.
If police fail to properly provide the warnings required by that case to a defendant in a criminal case at the time they are required, evidence can be excluded as a result or charges can be dismissed altogether.
That part of the law hasn’t changed. What the court had to decide in Vega was whether a defendant could also directly sue police for a violation of federal civil rights law for failing to provide the Miranda warnings.
In a 6-3 ruling, the court sided with a sheriff’s deputy who was sued by a Los Angeles hospital worker who alleged he was not read his rights when he was arrested by the officer.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion which found that violating Miranda is not by itself a violation of the Fifth Amendment protection of due process of law. He wrote the majority could find no justification for expanding the projections of Miranda to include a right to sue under Section 1983 of the federal civil rights statute.
The opinion found there could be any number of situations in which a suspect who had not been read their rights might still make a “self-incriminating statement without any hint of compulsion.” The court found that the other protections provided by Miranda, including the right to counsel, do not involve self-incrimination.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer. She wrote that the majority ruling could make it harder for suspects to pursue their legal remedies if they are not properly advised of their constitutional rights. She argued that the point of the civil rights statute is to provide a remedy to someone who might have to wait for years to have their conviction reversed because of a Miranda violation.
Even so, the ruling in the case appears to strike a fair balance between ensuring suspects are advised of their rights and protecting officers from unreasonable and potentially impossible to objectively defend lawsuits.