The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief in Vega v. Tekoh argues police officers should not be able to be sued for money damages if they fail to provide a Miranda warning.

Terrance Tekoh was tried for unlawful sexual penetration. At trial he introduced evidence that his confession was coerced. A jury found him not guilty. Tekoh then sued the officer who questioned him, Deputy Carlos Vega, under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 claiming Vega violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by not advising him of his Miranda rights. 

Section 1983 allows persons to sue government officials for money damages who subjected them to constitutional violations. States and local governments generally pay money damages awarded.

The Ninth Circuit held Tekoh could bring a Section 1983 case.

According to the Ninth Circuit, following Miranda there was much debate over whether Miranda warnings were “constitutionally required.” In Dickerson v. United States (2000), the Supreme Court held that Congress could not overrule Miranda via a federal statute that provided confessions were admissible as long as they were voluntarily made, regardless of whether Miranda warnings had been provided. Miranda, the Supreme Court reasoned, was “a constitutional decision.”

So, according to the Ninth Circuit: “Dickerson strongly supports Tekoh’s argument that a plaintiff may bring a § 1983 claim predicated on a Miranda violation when the un-Mirandized statement is used against him in criminal proceedings.” “Because Dickerson 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, we conclude that Tekoh has a claim that his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was violated.”

The SLLC amicus brief argues that Miranda isn’t a constitutional right but is instead a judge-made prophylactic rule. “A plaintiff can surely bring suit under §1983 if he is actually deprived of his constitutional rights by a coercive interrogation—for instance, if he is actually forced into an involuntary confession that is later used against him in a criminal trial. But a plaintiff just as surely cannot bring suit under §1983 if he is not deprived of his constitutional rights, and instead is deprived only of a prophylactic protection that this Court has announced to preserve those rights.”

The brief points out that if a police officer fails to provide a Miranda warning a remedy is available—the exclusion of the resulting statements in any subsequent criminal trial.

The brief also points out the negative consequences for local governments if money damages are available. “The potential burden on local governments and local law enforcement is staggering. On any given day, police officers interact with tens of thousands of their fellow American citizens, often in ways that involve posing direct or indirect questions and in circumstances that may or may not be custodial. Under the Ninth Circuit’s rule, an officer would either have to provide prophylactic Miranda warnings at practically every one of those interactions, or else face potential personal liability for damages if the resulting statements are later admitted at a criminal trial over the defendant’s objection that he was in custody when they were made.”

Harker Rhodes, Kirkland & Ellis, wrote the SLLC amicus brief which the following organizations joined:  National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, International Municipal Lawyers Association, National Sheriffs’ Association, Major County Sheriffs of America, California State Association of Counties, and the City of Chicago.  

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