Quick Take: Vega v. Tekoh, No. 21-499 (U.S. June 23, 2022)

July 1, 2022

Types : Alerts

Bottom Line:  SCOTUS held that the allegedly improper admission of an “un-Mirandized statement” in a criminal prosecution does not provide a valid basis for a claim under Section 1983 for violating the criminal defendant/civil plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment rights.

Facts:  In 2014, a Los Angeles Medical Center reported to the L.A. Sheriff’s Department an accusation by a patient that Terence Tekoh, a nursing aide working at the hospital, had sexually assaulted her. Deputy Carlos Vega questioned Tekoh at the medical center at length without giving Tekoh Miranda warnings, and Tekoh eventually provided a written statement apologizing for digitally penetrating the patient. (Note, the issue of whether this was a custodial interrogation was not addressed by the Supreme Court).

Procedural History:  Tekoh’s first criminal trial resulted in a mistrial for unexplained reasons. The trial judge denied Tekoh’s request to exclude his confession in the second trial, although he ultimately was acquitted of unlawful sexual penetration. Tekoh then filed a civil rights action under Section 1983 against Deputy Vega and several other defendants, alleging that the un-Mirandized interview violated his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.

At trial, Tekoh asked for a jury instruction to the effect that the jury must find that Vega violated Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination if it determined that Vega took a statement in violation of Miranda, and that statement was used against Tekoh at his criminal trial. The district court refused the requested instruction, and instead directed the jury to decide whether in the totality of the circumstances, Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment right had been violated.

The jury found in favor of Deputy Vega, and Tekoh appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the “use of an un-Mirandized statement against a defendant in a criminal proceeding violates the Fifth Amendment and may support a §1983 claim” against the officer who obtained the statement. After Vega’s petition for rehearing was denied, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Holding:  The Supreme Court, with a 6-3 majority, held that a violation of the Miranda rules does not provide a basis for a claim under Section 1983.

Rationale:  The Court concluded that Miranda imposed prophylactic rules to protect the right against compelled self-incrimination for suspects who are in custody and interrogated by the police; it did not, in the Court’s view, establish a per se rule that a Miranda violation equates to a violation of a criminal defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights.

For support, the Court looked to the Miranda decision itself, as well as subsequent caselaw asserting that the purpose of Miranda was to safeguard the right against compelled self-incrimination, not to create a constitutional right to the Miranda warnings themselves. The Court also cited cases holding that the fruits of an un-Mirandized statement could be admitted for limited purposes (such as to impeach the defendant if they testify), which, those cases noted, would not have been permitted if those statements had been the product of a Fifth Amendment violation, such as from a coerced confession.

The Court also addressed Dickerson v. U.S., which the Ninth Circuit relied upon in declaring that the use of an un-Mirandized statement in a criminal proceeding violates the Fifth Amendment and could support a § 1983 claim.  Dickerson involved a statute passed by Congress that effectively overrode Miranda and declared that the admissibility of a statement given during a custodial interrogation turned on whether the statement was voluntary.  In 2000, the Court struck down that law in Dickerson, but not, the Court noted here, because the Miranda warnings were a right unto themselves, but rather because the warnings protected the Fifth Amendment right, and were “constitutionally based” with “constitutional underpinnings.” The Miranda warnings were not constitutionally sacrosanct, however. The Court merely determined that the law at issue in Dickerson was a less-effective substitute for the Miranda warnings in protecting the Fifth Amendment right against coerced self-incrimination, leaving open the possibility that a different statute with stronger protections could someday supplant the Miranda decision.

The Court summarized its decision this way:

The Miranda rules are prophylactic rules that the Court found to be necessary to protect the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.

*   *   *   *

In sum, 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.  42 U. S. C. §1983.”

Takeaway:  Although the Supreme Court concluded that a Miranda violation does not necessarily equate to an actionable violation of a defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights, officers should always be mindful of the risk to a successful prosecution that arises whenever a defendant’s inculpatory statement is excluded as a result of not providing or adhering to the Miranda warnings. Moreover, recall that Tekoh was interviewed at his place of employment, and there was a question whether his interrogation by Vega was custodial, as well as a dispute as to whether it was coercive. This case thus leaves open the possibility that an interrogation in a police department, with an intentional or egregious violation of Miranda, could amount to a coerced statement that would rise to the level of a deprivation of the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and thus be actionable under § 1983. A Miranda violation certainly will be considered as strong evidence of a Fifth Amendment deprivation even if, as the Court has now concluded, that violation in and of itself does not provide the basis for a Section 1983 claim.


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