The Lawletter Vol. 48 No. 1
Jason Holder, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group, Inc.
Accused of sexually assaulting a patient while working as a certified nursing assistant, Terence Tekoh was interrogated “at length” by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Deputy. Vega v. Tekoh, 142 S. Ct. 2095, 2099, 213 L. Ed. 2d 479, 485 (2022). While the Deputy ultimately secured a written statement from Tekoh apologizing for inappropriate touching of a patient, the Deputy had failed to inform Tekoh of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966). Vega, 142 S. Ct. at 2099-2100. Following a mistrial, Tekoh was acquitted at the conclusion of his second trial. Id. at 2100. In both criminal trials, judges refused to suppress the un-Mirandized statement. Id.
Following his acquittal, Tekoh brought suit against the Deputy and other defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Id. An improper jury instruction led to a second trial in the civil action at which Tekoh requested the jury be instructed that it was “required to find that Vega violated the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination if it determined that he took a statement from Tekoh in violation of Miranda and that the statement was then improperly used against Tekoh at his criminal trial.” Id. The trial court refused the request, holding that Miranda establishes a mere prophylactic rule that could not, standing alone, provide a ground for § 1983 liability. Id. A panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that “Dickerson [v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 147 L. Ed. 2d 405 (2000)] made clear that the right of a criminal defendant against having an un-Mirandized statement introduced in the prosecution's case in chief is indeed a right secured by the Constitution.” Tekoh v. County of Los Angeles, 985 F.3d 713, 720 (9th Cir. 2021). Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Alito reversed, holding that the rules set out by Miranda and its progeny are “‘constitutionally based,’ Dickerson, 530 U.S. at 440, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 147 L. Ed. 2d 405, but they are prophylactic rules nonetheless.” Vega, 142 S. Ct. at 2101; see also id. at 2102 (collecting cases describing Miranda rules as “prophylactic”). Citing a series of cases in which the Court weighed "the benefits and costs of any clarification of the rules’ scope,” id. at 2103-04, Justice Alito noted multiple cases in which un-Mirandized statements or its “fruits” were nevertheless admitted at trial. Id. (citing Harris v. New York, 401 U.S. 222, 91 S. Ct. 643, 28 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1971) (statement obtained in violation of Miranda could be used to impeach testimony of defendant); Michigan v. Tucker, 417 U.S. 433, 94 S. Ct. 2357, 41 L. Ed. 2d 182 (1974) (“fruits” of un-Mirandized statement can be admitted); New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 104 S. Ct. 2626, 81 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1984) (statements obtained in violation of Miranda need not be suppressed when questioning is conducted to address ongoing “public safety” concern); Oregon v. Elstad, 470 U.S. 298, 105 S. Ct. 1285, 84 L. Ed. 2d 222 (1985) (fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree rule that applies to constitutional violations does not apply to violations of Miranda)). If a violation of Miranda constituted a per se violation of the Fifth Amendment, the majority reasoned, “[i]t is hard to see how these decisions could stand[.]” Id. at 2104. Moreover, even those cases which expanded the protections of Miranda, “acknowledged the prophylactic nature of the Miranda rules and engaged in cost-benefit analysis to define the scope of these prophylactic rules.” Id. at 2105.
Finally, the majority declined to adopt the argument that “the Miranda rules constitute federal ‘law’ and that an abridgment of those rules can therefore provide the ground for a § 1983 claim.” Id. at 2106. Concluding that while “the benefits of permitting the assertion of Miranda claims under § 1983 would be slight, the costs would be substantial,” id. at 2107, with the Court particularly concerned with the potential for re-litigating factual questions (e.g., whether the plaintiff was in custody) which were already decided by a state court. Id. Aside from the potential friction between state and federal court determinations, the Court also highlighted a number of procedural issues which could arise, including deference to a trial court’s factual findings, forfeiture and plain error rules carrying over from the criminal trial, whether harmless-error rules apply, and whether civil damages would be available where un-Mirandized statement had no impact on the outcome of the criminal case. Id.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Kagan accused the majority of “strip[ping] individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda.” Id. at 2111. While conceding that a criminal defendant can seek to suppress un-Mirandized statements at trial, “sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed. . . [and] defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison.” Id. Even if the conviction is overturned on appeal or in a habeas proceeding, Justice Kagan questioned “what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered? The point of § 1983 is to provide such redress—because a remedy ‘is a vital component of any scheme for vindicating cherished constitutional guarantees.’” Id. (quoting Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 639, 100 S. Ct. 1920, 64 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1980)). By denying the remedy, “[t]he majority here, as elsewhere, injures the right[.]” Id.