Can a person bring a claim for monetary damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based upon a police officer’s failure to provide a Miranda warning?
This case asks the Supreme Court to decide whether a hospital employee, who was not given a Miranda warning by a deputy before he confessed to assaulting a patient, may sue the individual officer for monetary damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Petitioner Deputy Carlos Vega contends that he did not violate Terence Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment rights because a Miranda violation is not a de facto constitutional violation. Thus, Vega asserts that Tekoh has failed to state a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Respondent Terence Tekoh counters that Supreme Court precedent has established a constitutional requirement for police officers to issue Miranda warnings. Therefore, Tekoh argues a prosecutor’s introduction of a statement obtained in violation of Miranda establishes a constitutional violation redressable by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The outcome of this case has heavy implications for public safety and the protection of constitutional rights.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether a plaintiff may state a claim for relief against a law enforcement officer under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based simply on an officer’s failure to provide the warnings prescribed in Miranda v. Arizona.
On March 14, 2014, a patient at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center accused hospital orderly Terence Tekoh (“Tekoh”) of sexual assault. Brief for Petitioner, Carlos Vega at 5. Deputy Carlos Vega (“Vega”) responded to investigate. Tekoh v. Cnty. of Los Angeles at 715. Vega approached Tekoh in the hospital, and the pair went into a nearby room to speak privately. Id. Tekoh and Vega provided different accounts of this discussion, but both agreed that Vega did not provide Tekoh with a Miranda warning. Id.
According to Tekoh, Vega blocked the room’s exit and accused him of sexually assaulting the patient. Id. Tekoh denied this allegation, even after Vega interrogated him for over thirty minutes and (falsely) asserted that the assault was captured on video. Id. Tekoh requested a lawyer, but Vega ignored him. Id. When Tekoh tried to leave, Vega threatened him with deportation if he did not confess. Id. Vega gave Tekoh a pen and paper and demanded a written confession. Id. When Tekoh hesitated, Vega put his hand on his gun. Id. Vega then dictated Tekoh’s confession. Id.
According to Vega, however, once he arrived at the hospital, Tekoh told him about what had occurred with the patient and expressed regret. Id. Tekoh asked if he could speak further with Vega in a private room. Id. Vega gave Tekoh a piece of paper and asked him to write down what happened while Vega looked for his sergeant. Id. Once Sergeant Stangeland arrived, Vega continued to question Tekoh in a conversational manner. Id. Tekoh voluntarily admitted to sexually assaulting the patient and appeared remorseful. Id.
Tekoh was arrested and charged in California state court. Id. His first trial resulted in a mistrial. Id. Upon retrial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Id. Tekoh subsequently filed a civil lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”) seeking monetary damages against Vega. Id. Section 1983 permits an individual to sue a government official who has violated their constitutional rights. See id. Tekoh alleged that Vega violated his Fifth Amendment rights when Vega coerced his confession without advising him of his Miranda rights. At trial, Tekoh requested that the district court provide a jury instruction stating that the jury should find that Vega violated Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment rights if it concluded (1) that Vega obtained a statement from Tekoh without first providing a Miranda warning and (2) this statement was used in a criminal proceeding against Tekoh. Id. at 716–17. The district court refused to give this instruction, instead instructed the jury to treat a coerced confession as a Fourteenth Amendment claim based upon fabricated evidence. Id. at 717. Thus, the jury was not to consider the confession to be a violation of Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment or Miranda rights. See id.
The jury found in Vega’s favor. Id. The district court later concluded that the jury instruction it had issued was erroneous. Id. Accordingly, it ordered a new trial and instructed the jury to consider the totality of the circumstances surrounding Tekoh’s confession. Id. Once again, the jury found for Vega. Id. at 718. Tekoh appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, ruling that Tekoh demonstrated that Vega violated his Fifth Amendment rights and thus was liable under Section 1983. Id. at 723. The court concluded that Tekoh’s statement was used against him in a criminal proceeding and that Vega was responsible for introducing this statement. Id. at 724.
DETERMINING THE SCOPE OF MIRANDA
Petitioner Carlos Vega asserts that Miranda v. Arizona (“Miranda”) is intended to ensure that a criminal defendant’s constitutional right against self-incrimination is protected. Brief for Petitioner, Carlos Vega at 20–21. Vega notes that the Supreme Court has held that a failure to give a Miranda warning is not equivalent to “actual coercion” and is instead a “presumption” that coercion occurred. Id. As a result of this, Vega argues that the Supreme Court has limited Miranda’s scope and now permits investigative and judicial use, including use at trial, of unwarned statements that would be barred if they were actually involuntary. Id. at 22.
Vega further argues that the Miranda rule is prophylactic, meaning that it exists only to protect the Fifth Amendment. Id. at 25. Thus, Vega asserts that a Miranda violation does not necessarily mean that the Fifth Amendment is violated because Miranda is a judicially created rule, not an actual constitutional right. Id. at 21, 25. Vega argues that a jury would have to determine that there was actual coercion beyond Miranda’s presumption to find that a criminal defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated. Id. at 22, 25. Vega also highlights that Tekoh has not yet shown that he was compelled to incriminate himself because a jury has not yet found actual coercion. Id. at 26. Instead, Vega explains that Tekoh has merely alleged, but not proven, that Vega’s questioning resulted in a self-incriminating statement that should have been excluded by the Miranda rule. Id. As such, Vega concludes that Tekoh has not shown that his Fifth Amendment rights were violated. Id.
Respondent Terence Tekoh counters that a Miranda violation creates a “presumption of coercion” and would violate an individual’s Fifth Amendment rights if that unwarned statement was used in the prosecutor’s case-in-chief. Brief for Respondent, Terence Tekoh at 20–21. Tekoh thus asserts that the use of the unwarned statement in a criminal trial violates the Fifth Amendment and creates Section 1983 liability. Id. at 34. Tekoh explains that Vega’s interpretation of Miranda as separate from the Fifth Amendment is wrong because the admission of the unwarned statement that was obtained during interrogation is a Fifth Amendment issue. Id. at 35. Tekoh therefore reasons that the interrogation and use of his compelled unwarned statements “completes the violation” of both his Miranda and Fifth Amendment rights. Id.
Tekoh also pushes back on Vega’s claim that Miranda is merely prophylactic by arguing that Miranda warnings are “constitutionally required” because the Supreme Court found that Miranda is rooted within the Fifth Amendment. Id. at 32. While Tekoh concedes that the judiciary has changed the scope and application of Miranda over time, he asserts that the Supreme Court has never wavered on its prohibition of unwarned statements in criminal trials. Id. at 33.
Vega argues that the Ninth Circuit misinterpreted Dickerson v. U.S. (“Dickerson”) because the case does not establish a “constitutional right to exclude unwarned statements” within the Fifth Amendment because Miranda creates only a prophylactic rule. Brief for Petitioner, Carlos Vega at 27–28. Vega explains that Dickerson contemplated whether Congress could bypass Miranda and require only the Fifth Amendment voluntary statement standard which regulates when a self-incriminating statement is admissible. Id. at 27. Vega contends that Dickerson Court reaffirmed that a Miranda violation required a broader look at whether a confession was compelled. Id. In addition, Vega notes that pre-Dickerson cases considered that Miranda established a constitutional rule, whereas post-Dickerson cases omitted the constitutional part and kept Miranda as a prophylactic rule. Id. at 29. Thus, Vega contends that a Miranda violation does not create a Section 1983 claim because Dickerson maintained the distinction between the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and Miranda’s status as a prophylactic rule. Id at 28. As such, Vega concludes that the Ninth Circuit mistakenly interpreted Dickerson as creating a rift by misinterpreting Miranda as constitutional right rather than just a prophylactic rule. Id. at 30.
Vega further contends that Chavez v. Martinez (“Chavez”) did not expand Miranda by transforming a Miranda violation into a constitutional violation. Id. at 4. Vega argues that Chavez co-exists with Dickerson, even though in Dickerson the Supreme Court found that Miranda has “constitutional underpinnings” that prevented Congress from overriding it. Id. Vega relies on Chavez to explain when an un-Mirandized statement can be used. Id. at 4, 18. Vega contends that Chavez states that an officer’s failure to issue a Miranda warning is not an automatic constitutional violation. Id. at 18. Thus, Vega urges that Chavez, instead of creating a constitutional right enforceable under Section 1983, simply reinforces that Miranda is an evidentiary rule that prevents most unwarned statements from being used in criminal trials. Id.
Tekoh counters that the Ninth Circuit rightfully relied on Dickerson. Brief for Respondent in Opposition, Terence Tekoh, at 8. Tekoh argues that Dickerson does not mean that Miranda is merely prophylactic, because Dickerson expanded Miranda’s reach. Brief for Respondent, Terence Tekoh at 25. Tekoh contends that Dickerson creates a constitutional requirement to give Miranda warnings. Brief for Respondent in Opposition, Terence Tekoh at 14–15. Tekoh explains that an officer violates an individual’s Fifth Amendment right when the officer fails to give a Miranda warning and subsequently introduces an unwarned statement at trial. Id. at 15. Tekoh argues that a Fifth Amendment violation warrants a Section 1983 remedy because the policy behind the statute is to “remedy and aid” human rights. Id. at 16. Thus, Tekoh asserts that under Dickerson, Miranda is a constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment and the admission of un-Mirandized statements warrants a Section 1983 claim. Id. at 17.
Tekoh further argues that the non-issuance of Miranda warnings is enough to create liability under Section 1983 according to the Supreme Court in Chavez. Id. at 10. Tekoh explains that following Chavez, the use of an unwarned statement in a criminal case violates both Miranda and an individual’s Fifth Amendment rights. Id. Tekoh asserts that his Fifth Amendment rights were violated because his unwarned statements were used during preliminary hearings and in his criminal trial. Id. Thus, Tekoh asserts that if a jury were to find that Vega conducted a “custodial interrogation” of him, his Fifth Amendment rights were violated under Chavez. Id.
Vega argues that the Ninth Circuit erred in finding that he, a law enforcement officer, proximately caused a violation of Tekoh’s rights because it was the prosecutor who introduced Tekoh’s unwarned statement and the trial judge who admitted the statement into evidence. Brief for Petitioner, Carlos Vega at 36–37. According to Vega, Section 1983 requires proximate causation to recover monetary damages. Id. at 37. Vega asserts that government officials, including police officers, are only liable for their own misconduct. Id. at 38. Vega explains that where an official did not engage in misconduct nor have direct responsibility for depriving an individual of their rights, the proximate causation standard required by Section 1983 will not be met. Id. at 39. Vega argues that it is the responsibility of the prosecutor, not the police officer, to decide whether to introduce unwarned statements at trial. Id. Thus, Vega argues that the prosecutor and the trial judge are the actors who determine whether a Miranda violation exists. Id. As such, Vega concludes that he was not the proximate cause of Tekoh’s alleged Miranda violation. Id.
Tekoh counters that Vega’s proximate causation argument necessitates a jury decision because it requires a fact-based determination. Brief for Respondent in Opposition, at 18. Thus, Tekoh asserts that Vega waived his right to introduce the proximate causation argument at the trial court level. Id. Tekoh further explains that Vega was the primary actor who caused his Fifth Amendment violation because Vega took the un-Mirandized statement and subsequently testified about that statement at a preliminary hearing and Tekoh’s criminal trial. Id. at 19. Additionally, Tekoh explains that Vega was actively involved in the litigation against him, and without Vega’s involvement, the case would not have contained his un-Mirandized statement. Id.
PROMOTION OF PUBLIC SAFETY
The National Association of Police Organizations (“NAPO”), in support of Vega, assert that attributing liability to police for Miranda violations under Section 1983 would discourage law enforcement officers from conducting efficient investigations. Brief of Amicus Curiae of National Association of Police Organizations, in Support of Petitioner, at 4. NAPO contends that individual liability for Miranda violations would deter officers from effectively questioning suspects, resulting in an increased threat to public safety. Id. Further, NAPO argues that the Supreme Court has long supported immunity from individual liability for government officials. Id. According to NAPO, this principle is especially relevant in this case because officers are required to exercise discretion while discharging their duties. See id. at 4–5. Thus, NAPO explains, it is better for officers to risk potential error during their investigations, than to avoid questioning a suspect at all out of fear of individual legal repercussions. Id. at 5. Additionally, NAPO notes that Miranda violations occur not when officers fail to give a Miranda warning, but when evidence obtained in the absence of this warning is introduced against a suspect at trial. Id. Accordingly, NAPO asserts that assigning individual liability for Miranda violations under Section 1983 would require officers to guess whether a prosecutor may seek to introduce such a statement against a criminal defendant. Id. Therefore, NAPO contends it would be erroneous to impose liability against individual officers for guessing incorrectly. Id.
Tekoh counters that because custodial interrogations are naturally coercive, such encounters between police and suspects risk the deprivation of Fifth Amendment rights. Brief for Respondent, Terence Tekoh at 52. Tekoh explains that statements obtained in violation of Miranda can lead to false confessions. Id. Tekoh adds that these erroneous confessions are more likely to result in wrongful convictions, and therefore allow the real perpetrators to escape detection and punishment. Id. at 53. As a result, Tekoh contends that individual liability for this failure to warn is necessary to prevent these avoidable outcomes. Id. In particular, Tekoh highlights how he was almost a victim of a wrongful conviction due to Vega’s failure to provide a Miranda warning. Id. Tekoh notes that even though he was not ultimately convicted, he still had to wait two years to proclaim his innocence and was forced to put his career prospects on hold. Id. Tekoh explains that an action under Section 1983 is his only means of redress for Vega’s misconduct. Id. at 54. Therefore, Tekoh asserts, permitting individual liability for police officers under Section 1983 would provide an opportunity for those who have had their Fifth Amendment rights violated to hold law enforcement accountable. Id. Moreover, Tekoh explains, this would deter officers from violating these rights in the future. See id.
THE REACH OF SECTION 1983 AND THE PROTECTION OF CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS
Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, and several other states (“the States”), in support of Vega, argue that Section 1983 only permits an individual to bring a claim when that person has suffered the violation of a right that is “secured by the Constitution and laws.” Brief of Amici Curiae, Arizona et al., in Support of Petitioner, at 11. The States contend that Miranda warnings are not themselves a constitutional right but are instead a court-designated rule intended to protect against self-incrimination. Id. According to the States, Section 1983’s congressional purpose is to provide individuals with an opportunity to pursue damages for a violation of their constitutional rights. Id. Thus, the States assert, individuals may not seek redress for Miranda rights under Section 1983 because there is no constitutional right inherently implicated. See id.
Tekoh counters that when Congress enacted Section 1983, it intended to provide individuals with an expansive remedy for government officials’ violations of all federally protected civil rights. Brief for Respondent, Terence Tekoh at 54. Accordingly, Tekoh urges that the States’ reading of Section 1983 as only providing a remedy for violations of constitutional rights is erroneous. See id. Further, Tekoh contends that Section 1983’s legislative history demonstrates that its language is “without limit,” meaning it is supposed to be interpreted as broadly as possible. Id. at 55. Tekoh notes that Congress intended for Section 1983 to deter constitutional violations, and subjecting officers to liability for violating constitutional rights by failing to provide Miranda warnings is a vital way to prevent this misconduct. Id. Moreover, Tekoh argues that there is an important policy rationale in enforcing congressional remedies through Section 1983, as police misconduct undermines the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, and thus damages caused by such misconduct should be compensated. Id.
- Hunter Ransom, You Have the Right to Remain Silent... and a § 1983 Claim? An Un-Mirandized Defendant’s Plea for Damages, Mississippi College Law Review (Mar. 11, 2022).
- Lisa Soronen, Supreme Court to Decide Whether Failure to Mirandize Means Money Damages, National Conference of State Legislatures (Jan. 19, 2022).