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VEGA v. TEKOH: US Supreme Court says no personal liability for a police officer’s violation of Miranda

We all know the Miranda warnings officers are required to give a suspect before conducting a custodial interrogation.  We also know the debates with every new factual scenario over what constitutes custody, explicit versus implied waivers, did they ask for an attorney or not, and the various ways the law is applied to each new factual situation.  As these cases work through the judicial process from trial court to appellate court, each court may have a different opinion as to whether a Miranda violation occurred.  This alone seems like an appropriate reason to disallow officers from being personally sued for such violations.  However, that was not the case until the United States Supreme Court decided Vega v. Tekoh, 597 U.S. ___ (2022).

In 2014, Terence Tekoh worked as a certified nursing assistant at a Los Angeles medical center.  A female patient accused him of sexually assaulting her and staff reported the allegation to law enforcement.  Deputy Vega responded and interviewed Tekoh at length at the hospital. He was not Mirandized.  Tekoh eventually provided a written statement apologizing for inappropriately touching the patient’s genitals. Tekoh was arrested. The defense argued at trial the statement was coerced. The trial court allowed the statement to be used.  The first trial hung.  The next judge (retrial) allowed the statement into evidence. The next jury acquitted Tekoh.  Tekoh then sued Deputy Vega pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging Deputy Vega violated his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any person acting under color of state law who “subjects” a person or “causes [a person] to be subjected … to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” The question for the Supreme Court was whether a violation of the Miranda rules provides a basis for a claim under § 1983. Tekoh argued that a violation of the Miranda rules constitutes a violation of the 5th Amendment, so he could then sue Deputy Vega for violating his constitutional rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that Miranda warnings are not constitutional rights, but rather prophylactic measures put in place to safeguard one’s 5th Amendment constitutional right. Factual scenarios exist where the law allows Miranda violations, including the need for answers to questions in situations posing an imminent threat to public safety that outweighs the prophylactic rule. These situations should not expose an officer to personal civil liability. Also, as discussed above where one court may find a Miranda violation, but another court with the same set of facts finds otherwise, makes for a mess requiring juries to make a legal finding when lawyers and judges disagree.  Further, the rationale of allowing officers to be personally sued is to deter. Here, statements obtained in violate of Miranda are excluded by the trial court. This already serves to deter officers from violating Miranda. In sum, a suspect cannot personally sue an officer pursuant to Section 1983 for a violation of Miranda.

What’s this mean for you? You may not have to deal with a civil suit, but if you violate Miranda, a confession will likely be excluded as evidence.

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