The NJ Police Chief Magazine - Volume 29, Number 3 - Page 12

The New Jersey Police Chief Magazine | November 2022
Vega v . Tekoh : Does the SCOTUS Case Really Change Anything About Miranda Warnings ?
Chief Mike Ranalli ( Ret .) Glenville Police Dept . Lexipol Program Manager with www . lexipol . com
Editor ’ s note : This article originally appeared in The Chief ’ s Chronicle ; New York State Association of Chiefs of Police . Reprinted with permission .
Can a police officer be sued for a violation of a person ’ s federal civil rights under 42 U . S . C . § 1983 (§ 1983 ) if the officer failed to administer Miranda warnings as required ?[ 1 ] This was the issue addressed by the Supreme Court of the United States ( SCOTUS ) recently in Vega v . Tekoh .[ 2 ] The majority , in a 6 – 3 decision , ruled the Miranda warning is a “ prophylactic rule ” protecting the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination , not a constitutional right itself . Therefore , the majority reasoned , a violation of Miranda does not constitute a violation of the Fifth Amendment and does not confer a right to sue under § 1983 for any violations . As a reminder , Miranda warnings are required for any person who is 1 ) in custody and 2 ) subject to interrogation . Whether both components are present in a case is typically a mixed question of law and fact to be determined in court .
Vega v . Tekoh has a complicated procedural history , and the majority went through a detailed analysis of past related precedents to come to its conclusion . For law enforcement , however , the more significant analysis is what impact this case has , or does not have , to police officers conducting investigations and interviews .
Vega v . Tekoh Terence Tekoh worked at a Los Angeles medical center and was accused by a female patient of sexual assault . The county sheriff ’ s department was called , and Deputy Vega responded to investigate the claim . Vega questioned Tekoh at the hospital in a private MRI reading room . As frequently happens in these cases , the description of what happened during the interview differed dramatically between Vega and Tekoh .
What is undisputed is that Vega never read Tekoh Miranda warnings , and a statement written by Tekoh apologizing for his actions was produced during the interview . Under Tekoh ’ s account , the interview was coerced , his request for counsel was ignored , Vega refused to let Tekoh leave the room after he denied involvement , and the content of the statement was dictated by Vega and written under duress . According to Vega , the conversation was congenial and Tekoh readily admitted to and seemed regretful for his actions .
At the criminal trial , the judge apparently believed Vega ’ s account , as the statement was admitted into evidence against Tekoh . But the jury ultimately returned a verdict of not guilty . The civil action then commenced , and the case wound its way to the SCOTUS .
First , the simple part . This decision means that if officers fail to administer Miranda warnings when required by law , they cannot be sued under § 1983 for a constitutional violation . It does not , however , change the fact that statements taken in violation of Miranda cannot be introduced into evidence against a defendant in a direct case . In this case , the issue hinged on whether Tekoh was determined to be “ in custody .” The criminal court judge ruled he was not .
What if Tekoh were deemed to be in custody ? Asking a person to write out what happened would clearly be considered a form of interrogation and so the statement would not have been admissible . But the admissibility of the statement would have been the only difference ; a § 1983 action would still not be permissible .
So , we are done , right ? If that is the extent of case ’ s impact , what more do we need to talk about ?
Complex Issues During Custodial Interviews Sometimes it is as important to understand what cases such as Tekoh do not do . Officers who do not fully understand the implications of a ruling may — in good faith — get procedurally creative . So , we need to cover what the case did not say to prevent officers from drawing erroneous conclusions .
First , this case should change nothing in the way you handle your investigations and custodial interviews . Miranda — mere “ prophylactic rule ” or not — is a rule police are required to follow to properly secure confessions and help build successful criminal cases . No officer should be making decisions relevant to investigations based on whether they may be civilly liable .
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