What happens when police violate your ‘right to remain silent’?
The Supreme Court decided that people cannot sue police officers for failing to read them their Miranda rights before questioning. Former Department of Justice attorney Michelle Coles explains.
On June 23, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion in the case Vega v. Tekoh. At issue was whether a criminal suspect named Tekoh could sue a law enforcement officer named Vega using 42 U.S.C. § 1983–also known as Section 1983, which permits people to sue government officials who deprive them of their constitutional rights.
The SCOTUS determined that Tekoh could not sue Officer Vega, although Tekoh claimed his constitutional rights were violated when Vega failed to read him a Miranda warning before questioning him about a crime.
In 1966, the Miranda warning became a constitutional rule that the Supreme Court created to protect people’s 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and 6th Amendment right to counsel. (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 all).
Miranda requires police officers to issue the following warning before questioning suspects:
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”
While law enforcement is welcome to do more to ensure people’s constitutional rights are protected, it cannot do less without violating their constitutional rights.
This Vega decision does not change the fact that police are still required to read suspects a Miranda warning before questioning them and, if they don’t, the prosecution will still be barred from using any self-incriminating statements that were compelled by the police at trial. What the Vega holding affects is the right to sue the police under Section 1983 for failing to read a Miranda warning before questioning. This ruling gives police additional qualified immunity.
Section 1983 is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a civil rights statute also known as the Third Ku Klux Klan Act, which was passed during the height of the Reconstruction Era. Its primary purpose was to protect the civil rights of 4.4 million African Americans who were emancipated from slavery and granted citizenship at the end of the Civil War.
As discussed in my debut historical fiction novel, Black Was the Ink, the United States was still bitterly divided after the Civil War, and many Americans were unwilling to accept the elevation of African Americans, who were previously held in bondage, as equal citizens. Throughout the South, white supremacists continued to occupy powerful governmental positions and often used their power to reinforce a social structure defined by white dominance. They also formed organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded by six Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865, and used murder, public lynchings, massacres, whippings, incarceration, and more to terrorize African Americans and prevent them from exercising their newly-obtained civil rights.
At first, Congress was slow to recognize the threat of these newly-formed domestic terrorist organizations and ignored the pleas of African Americans for protection, but with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Black people finally had the opportunity to vote and send their own representatives to Congress. Hiram Revels was the first Black person to join Congress as a U.S. Senator representing Mississippi beginning in February 1870. By 1871, there were six Black members in the House of Representatives, including Robert Elliott (R-South Carolina).
Congressman Elliott argued vigorously in support of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and highlighted numerous examples of how Black people’s citizenship rights were being systematically violated by government officials.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to give Americans a powerful tool to protect themselves from government overreach – the ability to sue government officials for violating their constitutional rights. This is an especially important tool for marginalized people who are more likely to be subjected to governmental abuse.
Because the Miranda warning protects rights secured by the Constitution (the 5th and 6th Amendments), people ought to be able to sue when government officials violate it. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court acknowledged as much, but then said it was going to use a “cost-benefit analysis,” which Section 1983 does not mention, to determine if it was worth it to allow people to sue government officials for Miranda violations.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court concluded that permitting federal lawsuits for Miranda violations would burden the courts and that outweighed the benefits of allowing people to sue to enforce their constitutional rights. This cynical analysis undervalues the role Section 1983 plays in leveling the playing field for marginalized citizens vis-a-vis powerful governmental entities. I shudder to think of what additional remedies this conservative Court may strip in the future using a “cost-benefit analysis” that undervalues the rights of marginalized people.
In the words of the great orator Congressman Robert Elliott, “To argue thus is to violate every sound principle of legal and logical interpretation, and to suppose a great wrong without a remedy in our political system.”
By Michelle Coles, Guest columnist