The United States Supreme Court has shielded law enforcement officers from having to pay monetary damages for failing to advise suspects of their rights before obtaining statements later used against them in court.
The justices on Thursday ruled 6-3 in favour of Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Carlos Vega, who had appealed a lower court decision reviving a lawsuit by a hospital employee named Terence Tekoh.
Tekoh accused the officer of violating his rights under the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
He was charged with sexually assaulting a hospital patient after Vega obtained a written confession from him without first informing the suspect of his rights through so-called Miranda warnings. “You have the right to remain silent,” the warnings begin. Tekoh was acquitted at trial.
On Thursday, the US top court’s six conservative justices were in the majority in the ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito, with its three liberal members dissenting.
The issue in the case was whether the warning given to criminal suspects before they talk to authorities, which the court recognised in its Miranda v Arizona decision in 1966 and reaffirmed 34 years later, is a constitutional right or something less important and less defined.
Alito wrote in his majority opinion that “a violation of Miranda is not itself a violation of the Fifth Amendment” and “we see no justification for expanding Miranda to confer a right to sue” under the federal law known as Section 1983. The law allows people to sue police officers and other government workers for violations of constitutional rights.
In the dissent opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court’s three liberals that the decision “prevents individuals from obtaining any redress when police violate their rights under Miranda”.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Thursday denounced the ruling, saying it will make it more difficult for people to hold law enforcement officials accountable for violations.
“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,” Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff lawyer with the ACLU, said in a statement.
“By denying people whose rights are violated the ability to seek redress under our country’s most important civil rights statute, the Court 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,” Kaufman said.
Vega, the Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, was backed by President Joe Biden’s administration in his appeal.
In 2014, Vega investigated a claim by a Los Angeles hospital patient that Tekoh, who worked as an attendant at the facility, had touched her inappropriately while she was incapacitated on a hospital bed.
Vega said Tekoh voluntarily offered a written confession even though he was not under arrest or in custody. Tekoh has disputed Vega’s version of events and contended that he was interrogated by Vega, who coerced a false confession.
Tekoh was arrested and charged in state court with sexual assault. His incriminating statement was admitted as evidence during the trial, but a jury acquitted him.
Tekoh then sued Vega in federal court, accusing the officer of violating his Fifth Amendment rights by extracting an incriminating statement without Miranda warnings, leading it to be used against him in a criminal prosecution.
The jury reached a verdict in favour of Vega, but the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021 ordered a new trial on the officer’s liability.
The 9th Circuit found that using a statement taken without a Miranda warning against a defendant in a criminal trial violates the Fifth Amendment, giving rise to a claim for monetary damages against the officer who obtains the statement.
Appealing to the Supreme Court, Vega’s attorneys said in a legal filing that the 9th Circuit’s decision threatened to “saddle police departments nationwide with extraordinary burdens in connection with lawful and appropriate investigative work.”
Vega’s lawyers added that “virtually any police interaction with a criminal suspect” might lead to liability for officers.