Supreme Court holds that failure to Mirandize doesn’t violate a suspect’s Fifth Amendment rights

Cops should Mirandize anyway


On June 23, 2022, in Vega v. Tekoh, the Supreme Court addressed whether failure to Mirandize a suspect provided a claim for civil damages in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit. Section 1983 permits an individual to sue a government official who has violated their constitutional rights. So, the Court had to decide whether the Miranda warning is a constitutional right.

Both the majority and dissenting opinions meander through case law and statements in opinions that were tangential to the decisions. In fairness, the constitutional status of the Miranda warning has been unclear since the case was decided in 1966.

Expressions of the Court in various opinions have referred to the warning as a “prophylactic” procedure towards ensuring a suspect’s Fifth Amendment rights, but not itself a right protected by the Constitution.

Then in Dickerson v. United States (2000), the Court found that Miranda had “constitutional underpinnings” that could not be overturned by statute. The Court held this in a case in which it ruled that federal legislation that provided for a less strict voluntariness standard for the admissibility of confessions could not be sustained.

Two dissenting justices in Dickerson noted that the majority had not specifically ruled that custodial interrogation not preceded by a Miranda warning was unconstitutional. Later, in the 2011 case J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the number of justices asserting that Miranda was not a constitutional right grew to four. In Vega v. Tekoh, the tally count of justices on either side of the issue shifted again.

According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute,

The outcome of this case has heavy implications for public safety and the protection of constitutional rights.”

The facts

Tekoh, a hospital orderly, was accused by a patient of sexual assault. Deputy Vega responded to investigate. The two men went into a nearby room to talk. They provided different accounts of this interaction with Vega describing a non-custodial interaction and Tekoh describing a custodial one. Both agree Tekoh wrote and signed a confession and Vega did not provide a Miranda warning.

After being found not guilty in a criminal trial in which his confession was introduced over his objection, Tekoh filed a section 1983 claim for monetary damages based on Vega’s failure to Mirandize him.

Vega prevailed in the civil lawsuit. Tekoh appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which reversed by holding that failure to Mirandize provided a claim under section 1983. Vega appealed to the Supreme Court.

The arguments

If you’d like to wind your way through the maze of case law Tekoh’s and Vega’s attorneys argued to the Supreme Court, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute provides a detailed rendition.

Citing specific cases, Vega’s attorney argued that Miranda was a judicially created rule intended to protect a defendant’s Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination, not a constitutional right itself. As such, failure to administer the warning did not provide a basis for a section 1983 claim.

Tekoh’s attorney cited other cases, arguing they established Miranda was not merely a “prophylactic” rule but was constitutionally required (when a suspect was interrogated in custody.)

The decision

In a 6-3 ruling, the Court sided with Vega. I found the majority opinion persuasive as it traced previous decisions in which the Court found that a Miranda violation did not constitutionally require the exclusion of all evidence obtained pursuant to the violation. Instead, the Court engaged in cost-benefit analyses which wouldn’t be permissible with a constitutional right. 

For example, in Harris v. New York (1971), the Court held that a statement obtained in violation of Miranda could be used to impeach the testimony of a defendant, even though an involuntary statement obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment could not have been used this way.

Similarly, in Michigan v. Tucker (1974), the Court held that the “fruits” of an un-Mirandized statement could be admitted. In doing so, the Court distinguished police conduct that “abridge[s] [a person’s] constitutional privilege against compulsory self-incrimination” from conduct that “depart[s] only from the prophylactic standards later laid down by this Court in Miranda to safeguard that privilege.”

The dissent in Vega v. Tekoh lost me when it wrote,

The majority observes that defendants may still seek ‘the suppression at trial of statements obtained’ in violation of Miranda’s procedures. [Citation omitted.] But sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed. And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison. He may succeed, on appeal or in habeas, in getting the conviction reversed. But then, what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered?”

If the statement isn’t suppressed, a judge made that decision. As did a prosecutor before the judge in taking the case to trial. So, shouldn’t the prosecutor and judge also be civilly liable? Oh wait, they have immunity. One of the reasons they do is these are complicated matters about which reasonable minds can disagree. What constitutes “in custody” and “interrogation” isn’t always clear before a court rules on specific facts.

A court can disagree 5–4 about whether a Miranda warning was necessary. Indeed, a higher court can disagree with a lower court. But the dissent would only have the officer civilly liable if evidence later showed the defendant was innocent when she’d been convicted based, in part, on an un-Mirandized statement. I can’t buy into that.

Moreover, while there’s been much concern expressed about the ruling in Vega v. Tekoh opening the floodgates to police abusing Miranda, there’s been no evidence produced to indicate that the threat of having evidence excluded is insufficient to deter police. 

Takeaway for cops

For over 35 years I’ve told cops, if you have any doubt, Mirandize. Why risk a prosecutor or judge disagreeing with your assessment of the facts?

It may help to know,

The great weight of empirical evidence supports the conclusion that Miranda’s impact on the police’s ability to obtain confessions has not been significant.”

In fact, I recommend officers learn to use the Miranda warning as part of establishing a rapport with the suspect. In my experience, that’s what good interviewers do.

In the end

Vega v. Tekoh didn’t undermine Miranda or the Fifth Amendment. It just clarified what had previously been uncertain about the constitutional status of the warning. Both the majority and the dissent found expressions from previous Court decisions supporting their respective arguments. In the end, the Court made the right decision.

NEXT: SCOTUS year in review: Decisions on qualified immunity and Fourth Amendment seizures

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