The Future is Uncertain for Miranda Warnings

MARY VOLLMAR—We all know the famous lines: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.” As quickly as these warnings can be prattled off by an arresting officer, how does a failure to promptly communicate them impact the admissibility of testimony in the civil context?

In criminal trials, any testimony inappropriately obtained is typically excluded from evidence. The exclusionary rule aims to deter police from violating Miranda, which was held to be a constitutional requirement in the hallmark case of Dickerson v. United States.

However, the constitutional basis of Miranda has recently come under fire due to a novel case, Vega v. Tekoh, scheduled to be decided by the Supreme Court this term. Vega raises the issue of whether a police officer can be sued for damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for failure to provide Miranda Warnings. Sec. 1983 is a civil penalty that allows persons to recover monetary damages when government officials, under color of law, subject them to a constitutional violation. Specifically, the narrow issue in Vega drudges up a long-fought circuit split on which the constitutional basis of Miranda has developed.

The factual background of Vega involves a coerced confession. Deputy Vega barred Terence Tekoh, an employee at a medical center in Los Angeles, from leaving an MRI room as he questioned Tekoh concerning an assault allegation. Yet Vega failed to give Miranda Warnings prior to the beginning of questioning, or at any point during the interview. Notably, Tekoh recalled Vega’s use of racial slurs, threatening motions to his gun, and ignorance of Tekoh’s multiple requests for an attorney. Eventually, Vega placed a pen and paper in front of Tekoh and literally dictated a confession to the crime to Tekoh.

During Tekoh’s criminal trial, the prosecution introduced evidence that had not been provided to the defense, leading the judge to rule that a mistrial had occurred. In the subsequent retrial, the jury acquitted Tekoh, finding him not guilty of the assault. However, Tekoh later sued Vega for violating his Fifth Amendment rights following the acquittal. Tekoh argued that his MRI room conversation with Vega constituted his being in the custody of a police officer, thus allowing him to file a § 1983 claim. Tekoh’s case moved through the United States District Court for the Central District of California and later the Ninth Circuit. Following the Ninth Circuit’s holding that Tekoh could file a § 1983 claim for the Miranda violation, Vega filed for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court.

Tekoh’s petition for a writ of certiorari presents concerning arguments highlighting future issues in Miranda Warning jurisprudence. In response, Vega argues that the 9th Circuit’s holding deepens the current circuit split. Perhaps the most persuasive argument noted is the idea that Miranda only enumerated a rule governing admissibility of evidence, rather than establishing a constitutional right to police warnings. Yet Vega makes an alarming contention in asserting that police officers do not proximately cause the improper admission of un-Mirandized statements. Instead, Vega would prefer a greater focus on the prosecutor’s and trial judge’s characterizations of a fact pattern when contemplatingadmission of un-Mirandized statements. Vega further argues that a Miranda violation can only be determined to have occurred at trial, meaning that an arresting officer cannot logically be the only cause of these violations.

These arguments present concerning precedent if adopted by the Supreme Court in the context of Miranda Warnings, especially with the current police atmosphere in the United States as police brutality and tensions between those in custody and officers rises. The future of Miranda and its protections for the accused in police custody thus rests on the precedent established affirmatively by the Supreme Court. The constitutionality of Miranda,and the availability of monetary damages, hangs in the balance.