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By: Alexia Roney
Due to countless police procedurals, the American public can recite from heart the Miranda warning – that a suspect has the right to remain silent, that anything they says can be used against them in a court of law, that they have the right to an attorney, and if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them prior to questioning. In mass media, this invocation is solemnly delivered as an officer snaps the cuffs on the suspect. The U.S. Supreme Court set out the Miranda warning, word for word, in the eponymous case, Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S.C. 436 (1966), as a prophylactic protection of a suspect’s Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination during custodial interrogation by officers.
The Fifth Amendment states, in relevant part, that “[n]o person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself….” Federal code 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action for damages against any person, acting under state law, who subjects a plaintiff or causes that plaintiff to be subjected to “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” A compelled confession during custodial interrogation is a violation of the Fifth Amendment and, as a consequence, the plaintiff has a right of action for damages against the offending officers under § 1983. The question is whether the failure of an officer to provide the Miranda warning itself is tantamount to a violation of the Fifth Amendment, giving rise to a cause of action for damages under § 1983.
On June 23, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court answered this question in the negative in its opinion, Vega v. Tekoh, ___ S.Ct. ____, 2022 WL 2251304 (Jun. 23, 2022) (available here). Vega based its decision on the following grounds: First, the right at issue is the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination; an un-Mirandized suspect in custody may voluntarily make self-incriminating statements without any compulsion, which would not violate the Fifth Amendment. Second, the Miranda warning includes several components that are meant to safeguard against self-incrimination, such as the right to counsel, but do not address self-incrimination itself. Third, the Supreme Court had never held that the failure to give the Miranda warning constituted a violation of the Fifth Amendment, instead recognizing that Congress or the States could adopt other procedures to replace Miranda if equally effective. Fourth, the Supreme Court has treated the failure to provide Miranda warnings differently – and less severely – than actual violations of a person’s Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in opinions after Miranda. And, finally, that Miranda issues should be addressed by the court handling the criminal prosecution, not a subsequent court that might reach a conflicting decision.
Thus, on the narrow issue of whether the failure to provide a Miranda warning prior to custodial interrogation gives rise to a cause of action under § 1983 for damages, the answer is no. The Vega opinion, however, left all other forms of relief for a Miranda violation, such as exclusion of the suspect’s statement from evidence during prosecution, undisturbed. If you have any questions about the Supreme Court’s decision or § 1983 claims generally, please contact Alexia Roney at [email protected].