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Right to an attorney, sure, but how about to sue when rights go unread?

The Supreme Court appeared worried about denigrating a landmark ruling that shaped Americans’ understanding of the criminal justice system.

WASHINGTON (CN) — One of the most culturally famous decisions in U.S. law faced high court scrutiny Wednesday in a case involving police officers who fail to present suspects with Miranda warnings.

Thanks to televised crime procedurals, most Americans can recite the set of warnings set out in the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona. In custody, police officers must inform suspects that they have the right to remain silent; anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law; they have the right to a lawyer; and if they cannot afford a lawyer one will be appointed for them. If an officer fails to present these warnings to a suspect, prosecutors can’t use their statements against them. 

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court grappled with extending that precedent so that suspects who have been denied a Miranda warning can sue the police for violating their rights.

The case stems from the alleged assault of a 53-year-old patient who was being treated for a stroke at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center. Carlos Vega, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, approached hospital orderly Terence Tekoh after Tekoh was identified as having transported the patient to her room. In a nearby MRI reading room where Vega took Tekoh to discuss the incident, Tekoh confessed to assaulting the patient. Vega says this happened before he got a chance to read Tekoh his Miranda warning because, according to Vega, Tekoh was not under arrest or in custody. 

Tekoh was arrested for unlawful sexual penetration of the patient and charged in state court. He tried to exclude the statement under Miranda, but the court deemed the statement admissible in that Tekoh wasn’t under arrest or in custody when he gave his confession. An unrelated evidentiary issue led to a mistrial, after which a jury found Tekoh not guilty. 

Once Tekoh was acquitted, he attempted to sue Vega for violating his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Within this suit, Tekoh claimed Vega violated his constitutional “right” to a Miranda warning — which is the conflict in this case. 

The jury in the civil trial ruled in favor of Vega, but the district court determined the jury instructions were incorrect. A new trial was ordered, and the jury ruled in favor of Vega again. On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Tekoh and held that the use of an un-Mirandized statement violated the Fifth Amendment and could be used to support a suit against a police officer. The Supreme Court agreed in January to take up the case. 

Some justices worried that a ruling in the case could give the perception of undermining Miranda and Dickerson v. United States — which upheld Miranda is a constitutional rule that can not be overruled by Congress. Justice Elena Kagan said Chief Justice William Rehnquist understood how Miranda had become central to Americans’ understanding of the law when he wrote his opinion in Dickerson, and that a ruling in favor of Vega would be inconsistent with that thinking. 

“If you overturned it or undermined it or denigrated it … it would have a kind of unsettling effect not only on people's understanding of the criminal justice system but on people's understanding of the court itself and the legitimacy of the court and the way the court operates and the way the court sticks to what it says,” the Obama appointee said. 

Most of the justices' questioning surrounded the idea of whether Miranda was a prophylactic rule or a constitutional right. Prophylactic rules are rules that are created by judicial judgments to protect constitutional rights. 

“Let's focus on the text,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “It seems to me that you wouldn't have a Miranda right if it weren't for the constitution. The right is secured by the constitution.” 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett also focused on the text but said Dickerson was careful not to specifically use the words “constitutional right.” 

Dickerson didn't ever use the word constitutional right,” the Trump appointee said. “It seemed very carefully worded to say a constitutional rule or constitutionally required. I've always taken one of the reasons why Dickerson was controversial, was that it asserted a right vis-a-vis state courts and vis-a-vis Congress for the court to announce constitutional prophylactic rules that it could impose on state courts and that it could assert as against Congress — so Congress couldn't overrule it by statute — but that it didn't think we're constitutionally required.”

Tekoh wouldn’t automatically win, however, if the justices conclude that Miranda is a constitutional right.

Assistant to the Solicitor General Vivek Suri underlined at arguments Wednesday that ”Miranda recognized constitutional right but it's a trial right concerning the exclusion of evidence at a criminal trial.

“It isn't a substantive right to receive the Miranda warnings themselves,” Suri said. “A police officer who fails to provide the Miranda warnings accordingly doesn't himself violate the constitutional right, and he also isn't legally responsible for any violation that might occur.” 

Vega’s arguments followed a similar line of thinking. 

“When a defendant's liberty is at stake, Miranda creates a protective fence around the Fifth Amendment,” said Roman Martinez, an attorney with Latham & Watkins representing Vega. “It gives defendants a windfall benefit by excluding statements that are completely voluntary. A trial court's Miranda violation taking away that windfall is a reversible error, but it doesn't violate the defendant's actual Fifth Amendment rights and it doesn't trigger a right to money damages.” 

Tekoh argued that it runs counter to precedent, text and common sense to agree with Vega that police officers could never be found liable for Miranda violations.

“Petitioner asked this court to find that a police officer can never be found liable under Section 1983 for a Miranda violation,” said Paul Hoffman, an attorney with Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris representing Tekoh. “This is so even where an officer elicits an unwarned custodial statement, lies about the circumstances, and the statement is introduced in the prosecution's case-in-chief. That categorical approach is counter to precedent, the text of Section 1983, and common sense.” 

Martinez and Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment following oral arguments.

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