23 Jun Vega v Tekoh: Cops Violating Miranda Win, Public Safety Loses
Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Vega v Tekoh is not a surprise. It is exactly what we expected. Literally. Five months ago, Interrogating Justice published SCOTUS Poised To End § 1983 Claims For Miranda Rights Violations. In that article, I wrote that, “[i]n a case called Tekoh v Vega, SCOTUS appears poised to address Section 1983 claims and Miranda.” In Vega v Tekoh, the Supreme Court did exactly that. As the decision’s syllabus indicates, the Supreme Court held that “[a] violation of the Miranda rules does not provide a basis for a § 1983 claim.”
In a practical sense, the takeaway from Vega v Tekoh is clear. In Miranda v Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that someone in police custody “must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed,” before police can question him. These warnings are known as “Miranda rights” or “Miranda warnings” today. And, in Vega v Tekoh, the Supreme Court ruled that you can’t sue a police officer who violates these rights.
Clearly, people whose Miranda rights are violated — people who police question without Miranda warnings — lose as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision. Sure, a court should throw out any statements you make without Miranda warnings if prosecutors charge you. But, most of the time, it takes months for courts to do that. In the meantime, you’re probably sitting in a jail cell waiting for the legal system to reach this inevitable result. And, for many, those months turn into years while you wait for an appellate or post-conviction court to fix a wrongful conviction.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Vega v Tekoh has a clear winner and a clear loser.
On the other hand, police officers who violate your Miranda rights win as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision. The reason why is simple: You can’t sue if they force you to confess to a crime you didn’t commit. That’s what Terrence B. Tekoh argued in Vega v Tekoh. In that case, he alleged, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Deputy Carlos Vega refused to let him leave a room, lied to him, ignored his requests for a lawyer, held him at gunpoint and badgered him with racial slurs to force him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit.
Now, because of the Supreme Court’s decision, the only remedy for the violation of Tekoh’s Miranda rights is the exclusion of his confession during the criminal case. However, the trial court in Tekoh’s case didn’t exclude that evidence. This meant that Tekoh didn’t even get the only remedy the Supreme Court now says is available to him. Thankfully, the jury in his case found him not guilty anyway. So, Vega’s violation of Tekoh’s Miranda rights only resulted in temporary incarceration and a wrongfully prosecuted criminal case. This is obviously a problem. But it could have also been something a lot worse.
But for Vega? Because prosecutors were able to use the forced confession he obtained in violation of Tekoh’s Miranda rights, he didn’t see any immediate consequences. And, because of the Supreme Court’s decision today, he won’t see any down the road either. This is clearly a win-win scenario for Vega and other police officers. They know they don’t have to worry about a lawsuit if they violate someone’s Miranda rights. And they also know that they might still get to use the evidence anyway — just like Vega did.
But the Supreme Court’s decision in Vega v Tekoh has another clear loser, too: you.
I get it. There’s someone reading this right now and asking themselves the age-old question: So what? After all, Tekoh isn’t that sympathetic of a figure. Prosecutors accused him of sexually assaulting one of his patients. You don’t have to be a “lock the door and throw away the key” critic of criminal justice reform to want someone like Tekoh to face some sort of punishment for his alleged actions (don’t forget that a jury found him not guilty, though) even if Vega violated his Miranda rights. Maybe a little punishment, you might think, is good for public safety even if police violated Miranda.
That’s what I want to focus on: what the Supreme Court’s decision means for public safety. Had the trial judge in Tekoh’s criminal case properly excluded the forced confession obtained in violation of Tekoh’s Miranda rights, it would have almost certainly dismissed the criminal case against Tekoh early on. In fact, the Supreme Court’s majority in Vega v Tekoh said, that’s the right outcome. There should have been “the suppression at trial of statements obtained in violation of Miranda,” Justice Alito wrote. And the court should have set Tekoh free.
If you’re a critic of criminal justice reform or just worried about public safety, this result should be just as alarming to you as it is for criminal justice reform advocates. When a police officer violates someone’s Miranda rights, that person gets (or is at least supposed to get) off scot-free. That’s what would have happened to Tekoh. And that’s what’ll happen to people who commit crimes much worse than the ones prosecutors charged Tekoh with. The only thing that changes as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision is that police officers won’t have to worry about a lawsuit.
The Supreme Court said doing nothing deters constitutional violations twice in two weeks.
A couple of weeks ago, in a case called Egbert v Boule, the Supreme Court reached a similar outcome. It ruled that the availability of two meaningless alternative remedies — or, as I put it, “doing nothing” — was enough to stop police from violating your Fourth Amendment rights. Today, the Supreme Court doubled down on that view. It said that doing nothing is enough to stop police from violating your Miranda rights. To use Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s words from her dissent in Egbert v Boule, these outcomes “drain the concept of ‘remedy’ of all meaning.”
After Egbert v Boule, I “wonder[ed] what would have changed had the Fourth Amendment not existed.” Today, I’m wondering something similar. What would have changed in Tekoh’s case if Miranda didn’t exist? What would have changed in Tekoh’s case if the Fifth Amendment didn’t exist? Like last time, I’m left with the same thought: “It’s possible the answer is simple—and devastating: nothing.”