In 2014, Los Angeles nursing assistant Terence Tekoh was accused of sexual assault by a patient. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sent Deputy Carlos Vega to question Tekoh. During the interrogation, Tekoh admitted to improper touching. In subsequent court cases, the parties disagreed over whether coercion was involved in the confession. Tekoh claimed that Vega threatened Tekoh and his family with deportation back to a country they fled. Tekoh further claimed that Vega used racist language in his questioning. However, both sides agreed that Miranda warnings were never given.
Tekoh was arrested and ultimately tried twice. The first trial resulted in a mistrial, the second in an acquittal. In both trials, the judges ruled that the statements were admissible evidence despite the lack of Miranda warnings because Tekoh was not in custody at the time that the violations occurred. After the acquittal, Tekoh brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights claim against Deputy Vega. Tekoh asked the trial court for jury instructions that they were required to find that Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment rights against compelled self-incrimination were violated if they determined that Tekoh’s statement was in violation of Miranda and should not have been admitted at trial. After two civil trials, a California jury ruled for Deputy Vega. Tekoh appealed, and the Ninth Circuit reversed, ruling that the admission of an un-Mirandized statement could violate the Fifth Amendment and serve as the basis of a § 1983 claim. In Vega v. Tekoh, 597 U.S. ___ (2022) (No. 21-499), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and held that a violation of the Miranda rule cannot be the basis of a § 1983 claim, and the jury could not be required to find Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated because Miranda warnings are not rights but rather judicially crafted rules.
This ruling serves as an erosion of the rights established in Miranda and will diminish the possibility of civil remedy for harmful impact from the elicitation of un-Mirandized statements. Specifically, it would further reduce the ability to seek redress for a wrongful conviction based on improper admission of un-Mirandized statements. It will also diminish the possibility of claims for many demographic groups, including racial minorities, immigrants, the young, and the intellectually disabled. Finally, by categorizing Miranda as a judicially crafted rule rather than a constitutional right, the Court opens the door for overruling Miranda altogether.
While the Vega decision could affect anyone who is interrogated by the police, the impact will be stronger in certain groups. First will be the impact on young defendants, the intellectually disabled, and other groups more prone to coercion. By eliminating the possibility of seeking recourse, Vega minimizes the impact on groups that are more likely to fall victim to coercive interrogation. This includes the impressionable young, others with limited ability for situational reasoning, or really anyone unfamiliar with the criminal justice system.
In addition to affecting those more prone to coercion, it limits the right to seek civil suit for those that give ill-minded interrogators additional opportunities to use coercive language. This would include racial minorities and immigrants fearful of deportation. Tekoh made claims of racial abuse and deportation back to the country he and his family fled seeking asylum. Classifying Vega as a rule and not a right severely limits the ability of citizens to hold government officials responsible for invective language in interrogation settings against minority groups.
In the wake of the Dobbs decision, overturning Roe v. Wade, we inch closer to the possibility of overturning Miranda as well. In the Dickerson decision, Justice Roberts wrote that Miranda was a “constitutionally based” right and a “law” that may be applied against the states. In Vega, Justice Samuel Alito writes that Dickerson was “bold and controversial.” However, it was still precedent, and stare decisis was ignored. Much like Miranda, Dobbs was a decades-long standing right that was debated in both public and legal circles. Ultimately, Roe was overruled in Dobbs, and stare decisis was also ignored. By shifting Miranda from a right to a “judicially crafted rule,” the Court takes Miranda one step closer to a similar fate.
The Vega decision undermines much of the power of Miranda. Miranda will still be enforced in criminal cases. Juries should not hear inadmissible statements. However, Vega ends a criminal defendant’s ability to seek remedies for the harm of violations. There will be no recourse for Miranda violations resulting in wrongful convictions or statements that are admitted despite coercion from racist language or threats of deportation. By stripping Miranda of categorization as a right, it opens the door for further erosion or even eventually being overruled.