SCOTUS year in review: Miranda warnings, malicious prosecutions and civil rights claims
There were several noteworthy cases from the past term pertaining to law enforcement officer liability for alleged constitutional violations
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – overturning abortion rights originally granted in Roe v. Wade – and New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen – providing an individual right to carry a firearm in public – overshadowed the rest of the October 2021 term. While neither case has a direct association with policing, there are tangential issues that could raise policing concerns.
Whether police officers should be dragged into enforcement efforts in those states criminalizing abortion is a topic left for another day as state abortion statutes develop in the wake of Dobbs. Similarly, the impact of the Second Amendment case on lawful and unlawful gun possession requires time to see how this evolves. Meanwhile, there were several noteworthy cases from the past term pertaining to law enforcement officer liability for alleged constitutional violations.
Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court summary of the 2020 term included two decisions published at the start of the October 2021 term. Those cases, Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna and City of Tahlequah v. Bond, involved use of force reviews by the Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal wherein police officers were found to have violated “clearly established law.” The Supreme Court reversed in both cases. The Ninth Circuit was instructed to look at existing precedent within the specific context of the case and not as a “broad general proposition,” while the Tenth Circuit was similarly directed not to define “clearly established law” too generally.
The remainder of the pertinent law enforcement cases from the October 2021 term also focused on liability-related issues.
No civil liability for failure to provide Miranda warnings
In Vega v. Tekoh, a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff was sued for not providing Miranda warnings to a suspect in custody.
The suspect, a certified nursing assistant, was accused of sexual assault by a female patient. During an interrogation the suspect provided a written statement wherein he apologized for inappropriately touching the patient’s genitals. His un-Mirandized statement was admitted into evidence at trial.
There were two state court trials since the first resulted in a mistrial. In that initial proceeding, the judge ruled that the nursing assistant was not in custody and allowed the statement in as evidence. At the second trial, the defendant Tekoh again sought to have his statement suppressed but it was admitted. Tekoh was acquitted by the jury and he subsequently filed a civil rights complaint under 42 USC § 1983 against the deputy sheriff, Vega.
In the federal civil rights trial, the jury awarded a verdict in favor of Vega, but the district court judge vacated the verdict because he had given an improper jury instruction. At the second trial, Tekoh asked for the jury to be instructed that his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was violated if the jury determined that Vega took a statement from him in violation of Miranda and the statement was erroneously used against him at trial.
The District Court judge ruled that Miranda created a prophylactic rule and did not provide separate liability for a violation. The requested jury instruction was thus denied, and a second jury found in favor of Vega. Tekoh appealed to a panel of the Ninth Circuit who reversed based on a determination that the use of an un-Mirandized statement against a suspect at trial was a Fifth Amendment violation and could subject a police officer to §1983 liability.
Justice Alito wrote the 6-3 majority opinion for the Supreme Court and reversed the Ninth Circuit. Echoing the ruling of the Second District Court to try the case, the majority held that Miranda was a prophylactic rule meant to safeguard individual rights against self-incrimination but not to create a separate basis of government liability. The Court said that a Miranda violation was not tantamount to a Fifth Amendment violation. Furthermore, the Court said the expansion of the Miranda doctrine to create a right to sue would be of little benefit and a drain on the judicial system.
The purpose of Miranda warnings is to provide a suspect with knowledge of their rights and guard against coerced statements. Failure to provide Miranda warnings during custodial questioning results in suppression of any statement at trial. It is a per se rule of exclusion. The Vega case reinforces the Court’s prior position in Chavez v. Martinez, 538 U.S. 760 (2003), that failure to administer Miranda warnings does not deprive a suspect of Fifth Amendment rights. However, the Chavez majority did state that substantive due process rights could be violated under egregious circumstances.
Malicious prosecution claims
The facts of Thompson v. Clark involve a complaint of sexual abuse lodged against a newborn baby’s father by his sister-in-law in Brooklyn, New York.
Two EMTs arrived in response to the sister-in-law’s 911 call. Thompson, unaware of the 911 call, denied that anyone called and refused the EMTs entry. The EMTs then contacted the police.
When four police officers responded to Thompson’s apartment – where he lived with his fiancée, his newborn daughter and sister-in-law – he refused to grant them entry without a warrant. The officers then forced their way into his apartment, engaged in a brief scuffle with Thompson, and handcuffed him. The EMTs checked the baby, found red marks on her body, and took her to the hospital. The marks were later determined to be diaper rash.
Meanwhile, Thompson was arrested and processed for obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. He was held for two days in jail until a judge released him on his own recognizance. Eventually, before trial, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges and the trial judge granted dismissal.
Thompson sued the four officers for several constitutional violations, among them a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim. Case precedent in the Second Circuit required that malicious prosecution claims show that a criminal prosecution ended not only without a conviction but that plaintiffs also must provide an affirmative indication of innocence. Thompson was unable to provide such proof in District Court and summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment claim was granted to the police officers. The Second Circuit followed its precedent and upheld the District Court's determination.
Prior to the Supreme Court decision in this case, federal courts of appeal were split on how to apply the favorable termination requirement under a Fourth Amendment §1983 claim for malicious prosecution. The 6-3 majority opinion by Justice Kavanaugh settled the matter by holding that a malicious prosecution plaintiff need only show that prosecution ended without conviction. Thus, the more stringent requirement employed by the Second Circuit and a few other federal circuits is no longer required.
Civil rights claims against federal agents
Since the text of federal statute 42 USC §1983, a civil action for the deprivation of civil rights, bases a constitutional violation upon anyone acting “under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia” federal agents are not subject to suit under the statute. In the 1971 case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents the U.S. Supreme Court inferred a private right of action for money damages where there is no other federal remedy for a constitutional violation. This initial holding was limited to Fourth Amendment violations by federal officials. It was later expanded in 1979 to include Fifth Amendment due process claims and Eight Amendment violations in 1980.
In Egbert v. Boule, the Court was confronted with a novel claim against a Border Patrol agent alleging First Amendment retaliation tied to a Fourth Amendment violation. The case resulted from an innkeeper, Robert Boule, at the U.S.-Canadian border, who filed a complaint with Border Patrol supervisors against an agent he alleged used excessive physical force against him while investing an immigration matter. After Boule’s complaint was filed the agent contacted the Internal Revenue Service and suggested that Boule be investigated. Boule subsequently filed a federal Bivens action against the agent and linked his First Amendment retaliation claim to his Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. Justice Thomas’s majority opinion held that a First Amendment claim was outside the scope of Bivens. Furthermore, the majority said that Boule’s Fourth Amendment excessive force claim was also not proper since there was an alternate remedy through the Customs and Border Protection’s administrative accountability process. The Court stated that even though Bivens permits Fourth Amendment claims against federal officials, it raises national security concerns when applied to Border Patrol agents. Justice Gorsuch issued a concurring opinion calling for the Court to overturn Bivens.
Egbert v. Boule continues the Court’s limitation of Bivens after an initial eight years of expanding its reach. Since 1980, as Justice Thomas pointed out, the Court has declined in 11 cases to apply Bivens to other constitutional violations.