In Vega v. Tekoh, the United States Supreme Court considered whether a plaintiff could sue a police officer under §1983, based on the allegedly improper admission of an “un-Mirandized” statement in a criminal prosecution.

The Court laid out the facts as follows:

In March 2014, Tekoh was working as a certified nursing assistant at a Los Angeles medical center. When a female patient accused him of sexually assaulting her, the hospital staff reported the accusation to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and Deputy Vega responded. Vega questioned Tekoh at length in the hospital, and Tekoh eventually provided a written statement apologizing for inappropriately touching the patient’s genitals. The parties dispute whether Vega used coercive investigatory techniques to extract the statement, but it is undisputed that he never informed Tekoh of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436 (1966), which held that during a custodial interrogation police officers must inform a suspect that “he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any question- ing.” Id., at 479.

Tekoh was arrested and charged in California state court with unlawful sexual penetration. At Tekoh’s first trial, the judge held that Miranda had not been violated because Tekoh was not in custody when he provided the statement, but the trial resulted in a mistrial. When Tekoh was re-tried, a second judge again denied his request to exclude the confession. This trial resulted in acquittal, and Tekoh then brought this action under 42 U. S. C. §1983 against Vega and several other defendants seeking damages for alleged violations of his constitutional rights, including his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.

When this §1983 case was first tried, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Vega, but the judge concluded that he had given an improper jury instruction and thus granted a new trial. Before the second trial, Tekoh asked the court to in- struct the jury that it was required to find that Vega violated the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination if it determined that he took a statement from Tekoh in violation of Miranda and that the statement was then improperly used against Tekoh at his criminal trial. The District Court declined, reasoning that Miranda established a prophylactic rule and that such a rule could not alone provide a ground for §1983 liability. Instead, the jury was asked to decide whether Tekoh’s Fifth Amendment right had been violated. The court instructed the jury to determine, based on “the totality of all the surrounding circumstances,” whether Tekoh’s statement had been “improperly coerced or compelled,” and the court explained that “[a] confession is improperly coerced or compelled . . . if a police officer uses physical or psychological force or threats not permitted by law to undermine a person’s ability to exercise his or her free will.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 119a. The jury found in Vega’s favor, and Tekoh appealed.

A Ninth Circuit panel 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. Tekoh v. County of Los Angeles, 985 F. 3d 713, 722 (2021). The panel acknowledged that this Court has repeatedly said that Miranda adopted prophylactic rules designed to protect against constitutional violations and that the decision did not hold that the contravention of those rules necessarily constitutes a constitutional violation. See 985 F. 3d, at 719–720. But the panel thought that our decision in Dickerson v. United States, 530 U. S. 428 (2000), “made clear that the right of a criminal defendant against having an un-Mirandized statement introduced in the prosecution’s case in chief is indeed a right secured by the Constitution.” 985 F. 3d, at 720. Therefore the panel concluded that Tekoh could establish a violation of his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination simply by showing that Miranda had been violated.  The panel thus remanded the case for a new trial.

The Court began its analysis of Officer Vega’s appeal by pointing out that §1983 provides a cause of action when an officer, acting under color of law deprives a person of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.

In deciding that a violation of Miranda does not give a person a cause of action under §1983, the Court pointed out that violating Miranda is a violation of a Court-created rule and not a violation of the 5th Amendment.  The Court noted that Miranda and the cases which followed made clear that Miranda imposed a prophylactic set of rules to safeguard 5th Amendment rights but did not hold that a violation of Miranda amounted to a Constitutional violation.

The decision provided a detailed history of Court’s Miranda rulings and points out that where Miranda rules were violated, but the 5th Amendment was not, then statements were generally allowed for some purposes such as impeachment and discovery of additional evidence.  The Court made clear that when the 5th Amendment is violated, the fruit of the poisonous tree rule applies to anything gained as the result of the violation, however when the Miranda rule is violated there is no fruit of the poisonous tree rule application.

The Court concluded that a violation of Miranda is not itself a violation of the Fifth Amendment and ruled further that there was no justification for expanding Miranda to confer a right to sue under §1983.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email