WASHINGTON — If there’s one constitutional protection known to anyone who owns a television, it’s the familiar disclaimer required by the 1966 Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona.
But the constitutional status of Miranda’s warnings has long been disputed and remains unclear, as a Supreme Court argument made clear on Wednesday. In considering whether the officers could be prosecuted for failing to administer the warning, the judges debated whether the Miranda decision had established a constitutional right or something less concrete.
The issue arose in a civil rights case brought by Terence B. Tekoh, a hospital attendant accused of sexually abusing an immobilized patient receiving an emergency MRI. Mr. Tekoh was questioned at length by Carlos Vega, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles.
The two men offered widely differing accounts of the nature of the questioning, but it was undisputed that Mr. Vega had not given the Miranda warning, that Mr. Tekoh had signed a confession admitting the assault , that a trial judge had admitted his confession. in evidence or that a jury acquitted him.
Mr. Tekoh then sued Mr. Vega under an 1871 federal civil rights law known as Section 1983 which allows citizens to sue state officials, including police, for violation of constitutional rights.
The case, Vega v. Tekoh, No. 21-499, was complicated by factual disputes over whether Mr. Tekoh had been in the type of detention that required a warning or had been under duress. In a Supreme Court brief, lawyers for Mr. Vega said Mr. Tekoh was contrite and remorseful and had written his confession uninvited.
An attorney for Mr. Tekoh, Paul L. Hoffman, gave a very different account on Wednesday. “Mr. Tekoh says he was put in a locked room for an hour,” Mr. Hoffman said. “He is being reprimanded and basically threatened with expulsion with an officer who has his hand on a gun.”
Judges considered whether Mr. Tekoh could sue even if he could prove his version of events. This revolved around Miranda’s constitutional status, which had been the subject of much criticism in the 1980s and 1990s and a congressional effort to overthrow it.
The debate was largely closed in Dickerson v. United States, a 7-to-2 decision in 2000. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, himself a longtime critic of Miranda, wrote for the majority that the warnings had “become part of standard police practice” and had “become part of the national culture”.
Since the Miranda decision had “announced a constitutional rule,” he wrote, a law that sought to overturn it was itself unconstitutional.
But Roman Martinez, a lawyer for Mr Vega, said a constitutional rule is different from a constitutional right. “Dickerson gives Miranda constitutional status, but that doesn’t say that Miranda creates a Fifth Amendment right.”
Judge Elena Kagan said the court should be wary of limiting the scope of the Dickerson decision.
“If we get out of your way, it will undermine Dickerson,” she told Mr. Martinez.
And that, in turn, she continued, “would have a kind of disruptive effect on not only people’s understanding of the criminal justice system, but people’s understanding of the court as well.” itself and the legitimacy of the tribunal and the way the tribunal operates and the tribunal stands by what it says.
Mr Martinez replied that he was not asking the court to strike down Miranda or Dickerson, only to say that they had not established the type of right the violation of which could give rise to a prosecution under the law. on civil rights.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett said it was significant that Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion in Dickerson did not qualify the Miranda warning as constitutional law. “It seemed very carefully worded to say ‘constitutional rule’ or ‘constitutionally required,'” she said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said his predecessor, whom he served as a jurist, chose his words carefully. “He didn’t say Miranda is in the Constitution,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “He talked about the constitutional foundations, the constitutional basis.”
There was a second issue in the case, one pressed by Vivek Suri, a federal government attorney arguing on behalf of Mr. Vega. What the Miranda decision guarantees, he said, is that confessions obtained without the required warnings cannot be used at trial.
“Miranda recognized a constitutional right, but it is a trial right regarding the exclusion of evidence in a criminal trial,” he said. “It is not a substantive right to receive the Miranda warnings themselves.”
“A police officer who fails to provide Miranda’s warnings is therefore not himself violating constitutional law,” Mr. Suri said, “nor is he legally liable for any violation that may arise later during the court case“.
Mr. Hoffman, representing Mr. Tekoh, urged judges to allow his client to hold Mr. Vega to account.
“His life was destroyed by these actions,” Mr. Hoffman said. “He is acquitted. When the full story comes out, he claims the officer set him up for it and also set up the prosecutor and court. What remedy does he have?