Nahmod Law

Miranda Violations and Section 1983: The Disingenuous Decision in Vega v. Tekoh

In Chavez v. Martinez, 538 U.S. 760 (2003), a majority of the Supreme Court effectively held that coerced confessions that violate the Fifth Amendment are actionable under section 1983 so long as the confessions are used at criminal trials. See sec. 3:25 of my Treatise, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation: The Law of Section 1983 (2021-22 Edition)(West/Westlaw) for discussion of this confusing case and its various opinions.    

 After Chavez, suppose a plaintiff sues a police officer for damages under section 1983 alleging that an “un-Mirandized” statement was improperly admitted in a criminal prosecution in which the plaintiff was ultimately found not guilty by a jury. In such a case, the Ninth Circuit had concluded:

“[I]n light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dickerson v. United States [530 U.S. 428 (2000)], which held that Miranda is a rule of constitutional law that could not be overruled by congressional action, we conclude that where the un-Mirandized statement has been used against the defendant in the prosecution’s case in chief in a prior criminal proceeding, the defendant has been deprived of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and he may assert a claim against the state official who deprived him of that right under §1983.”

In Vega v. Tekoh, 142 S. Ct. – (2022), rev’g Tekoh v. County of Los Angeles, 985 F.3d 713 (9th Cir. 2021), the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Alito, reversed. It held that the Ninth Circuit had improperly extended Miranda’s case law. The Court explained, first, that Miranda itself and subsequent case law made clear that Miranda violations were not necessarily Fifth Amendment violations but were essentially prophylactic. Second, Dickerson, which involved a federal statute that made the admissibility of a statement given during custodial interrogation turn on voluntariness only–a federal statute that the Court held was unconstitutional because inconsistent with Miranda–did not change this. Justice Alito, in a strained reading, understood Dickerson as not equating Miranda violations with “outright” Fifth Amendment violations, even though Dickerson had asserted that Miranda was a “constitutional decision” that adopted a “constitutional rule.”

Finally, the Court addressed the question whether Miranda violations could be considered actionable “laws” violations—see generally Ch 2 of my Treatise. Answering in the negative, the Court engaged in a kind of cost-benefit analysis and concluded that, among other things, allowing the plaintiff’s section 1983 damages claim to proceed would disserve “judicial economy” and could raise “many procedural issues.” Furthermore, Miranda, Dickerson and other decisions provided sufficient protection against self-incrimination in criminal proceedings. In short, there was “no justification” for extending Miranda to section 1983 damages actions.

 Justice Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. They read Dickerson  as making explicit that Miranda is a right “secured by the Constitution”: “Dickerson tells us again and again that Miranda is a ‘constitutional rule’ [and] a ‘constitutional decision’ [and is] ‘constitutionally based.’” They also pointed out that even if Miranda extended the Fifth Amendment’s core guarantee, it was still enforceable under section 1983 as a right in the “ordinary” meaning of that term. Finally, they warned: “[S]ometimes, as a result [of an un-Mirandized statement not being suppressed], a defendant will be wrongfully convicted and spend years in prison. He may succeed, on appeal or in habeas, in getting the conviction reversed. But then, what remedy, does he have for all the harm he has suffered?” This is what section 1983 was for, according to the dissenters.


How to explain Vega? The most plausible explanation, in my opinion, is that the majority simply did not approve of Miranda on the merits and did not want to expand its coverage beyond criminal proceedings themselves. For that reason, and despite the clear indications in Dickerson that Miranda has a kind of constitutional status, the Court engaged in a tortuous, strained and even disingenuous interpretation of Dickerson to reach its conclusion that Miranda violations are not actionable under section 1983. And as to its use of cost-benefit analysis, the 42nd Congress itself made the cost-benefit analysis way back in 1871: once a state actor deprives a person of a right secured by the Constitution, that person may indeed have a section 1983 damages remedy, subject to the other requirements of section 1983.

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Written by snahmod

July 12, 2022 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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