US Supreme Court hears oral argument on Miranda rights case
© WikiMedia (Joe Ravi)
US Supreme Court hears oral argument on Miranda rights case

The US Supreme Court Wednesday heard an oral arguments for Vega v. Tekoh. The case will determine whether a person can seek civil relief when an officer fails to provide them with their Miranda rights, legal protections for potential criminal defendants against self-incrimination.

Terence Tekoh was employed as nursing assistant at a Los Angeles medical center when he was accused of sexually assaulting a heavily sedated patient. The allegations were reported and  Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Deputy Carlos Vega went to the hospital where he questioned Tekoh. After about an hour of questioning Vega obtained a handwritten confession of the assault from Tekoh. Tekoh claims the confession was obtained without Vega providing him with his Miranda rights. 

At trial, Tekoh’s motion to remove the confession from evidence was denied. When that trial ended in mistrial, there was a second trial  where the government, tried to introduce Tekoh’s confession again. The jury acquitted Tekoh in the second trial. Following his acquittal, Tekoh sued Vega, Vega’s supervisor, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and the County of Los Angeles for damages. During that case the jury ruled  in favor of Vega and the other defendants. Tekoh appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which overruled the jury’s verdict and reversed the district court’s ruling in favor of Tekoh.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, Tekoh’s attorney Paul Hoffman claimed Tekoh’s confession was obtained as a result of being placed in a closed room for an hour, berated, and threatened with deportation while Vega had his hand on a gun. Tekoh seeks to hold Vega civilly liable for his failure to provide Tekoh with his Miranda rights. 

However Vega’s attorney Roman Martinez acknowledged that Miranda rights are constitutionally protected, but not a Fifth Amendment right. Martinez reasoned that  Dickerson v. United States gave Miranda v. Arizona constitutional status, but did not create a Fifth Amendment right.

During their lines of questioning, Supreme Court justices challenged both parties’ claims. Justice Kagan warned that the court should be careful of limiting the Dickerson decision in the way that Martinez construed it. Kagan warned that Martinez’s construction of Dickerson may undermine it and unsettle people’s understanding of the criminal justice system in as well as the court system’s legitimacy. Justice Barrett, on the other hand, said when Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion in Dickerson, he  did not say Miranda warnings were a constitutional right. Barrett said, “It seemed very carefully worded to say ‘constitutional rule’ or ‘constitutionally required.’” Chief Justice Roberts said Rehnquist chose his words carefully and only addressed the constitutional underpinnings and constitutional basis of Miranda.

At the close of oral arguments, Hoffman said: “[Tekoh’s] life was destroyed by these actions. He gets acquitted. When the full story comes out, he is contending that the officer set him up for this and basically set up the prosecutor and court, too. What remedy does he have?”

The court’s decision on the case is not expected until June 2022.