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Two police officers arrest a suspent in Chelsea, Massachusetts on May 14, 2022. (Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

In 'Dangerous Decision,' Supreme Court Guts Protection of Miranda Rights

When "ordinary people are disempowered," warned one civil liberties advocate in response to the ruling, "government impunity grows."

Julia Conley

Legals experts warned law enforcement agencies will have "zero incentive" to ensure that a person being arrested is read their Miranda rights after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday handed down a ruling the ACLU characterized as a "dangerous" assault on long-established protections.

"The warnings mandated by the Supreme Court in Miranda have been part of the fabric of law enforcement interactions with the public for more than 60 years."

Ruling in the case of Vega vs. Tekoh, the majority decided that people cannot sue an officer under Section 1983, a key federal civil rights enforcement law, for not informing them of their right to remain silent and other protections under the Miranda statute. 

To protect people's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, officers are required to inform suspects of their rights as soon as they are taken into custody.

While those rights are still intact, University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck told CNN, the 6-3 ruling effectively guts the law.

"Today's ruling doesn't get rid of the Miranda right," Vladeck said. "But it does make it far harder to enforce. Under this ruling, the only remedy for a violation of Miranda is to suppress statements obtained from a suspect who's not properly advised of his right to remain silent. But if the case never goes to trial, or if the government never seeks to use the statement, or if the statement is admitted notwithstanding the Miranda violation, there's no remedy at all for the government's misconduct."

The ACLU, which filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff in the case, Terence Tekoh, said the ruling "further widens the gap between the guarantees found in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the people's ability to hold government officials accountable for violating them."

"The warnings mandated by the Supreme Court in Miranda have been part of the fabric of law enforcement interactions with the public for more than 60 years," said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney for the group. "We fought for the Supreme Court to recognize these rights, and we'll keep fighting to make sure our country lives up to the Constitution’s guarantees."

The case stemmed from the arrest of Tekoh in 2014, when he was accused of sexually assaulting a patient at a hospital in Los Angeles County.

Lawyers for Carlos Vega, the sheriff's deputy who arrested Tekoh, said the plaintiff was not "in custody" when he was questioned and that Tekoh gave a voluntary statement. Vega did not give Tekoh a Miranda warning but his confession was nonetheless used as evidence during his trial, in which a jury ultimately found him not guilty.

Tekoh then sued Vega for violating his rights and accused the deputy of coercing the confession out of him.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that "a violation of Miranda does not necessarily constitute a violation of the Constitution, and therefore such a violation does not constitute 'the deprivation of [a] right... secured by the Constitution' that would authorize a civil rights suit against a police officer."

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent on behalf of the three liberal justices, arguing that the ruling "strips individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda."

"The majority here, as elsewhere, injures the right by denying the remedy," Kagan wrote.

The ruling comes two weeks after the Supreme Court handed down another 6-3 decision weakening Americans' ability to challenge law enforcement officers who violate their constitutional rights.

In Egbert v. Boule, the right-wing majority ruled against a man who wanted to sue a U.S. Border Patrol agent who entered his property without a warrant and used excessive force.

Referring to another decision handed down Thursday regarding the right to carry firearms and an expected ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Democratic strategist Sawyer Hackett said under the current Supreme Court, "you can carry a concealed gun in public without a permit but if you get an abortion you can be arrested and jailed without Miranda rights."

Under the ruling, said Partners for Justice founder Emily Galvin-Almanza, "ordinary people are disempowered, government impunity grows."

Galvin-Almanza urged Americans to "call your state reps and ask them to enshrine Miranda rights in state law."

Advocates for adding justices to the Supreme Court, as Congress has done a number of times throughout U.S. history, said the ruling in Vega v. Tekoh offered another reason to expand the court.

"We cannot allow this overtly political court to stand in the way of our safety," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) "Expand the court."


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