It is a mantra that fans of American cop shows around the world can rattle off by heart.
“You have the right to remain silent,” a police officer advises a suspect under arrest. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided to you.”
The so-called “Miranda warning,” routinely administered by American law enforcement since the 1960s, came into the national spotlight last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers can’t be sued for not advising detained suspects of their right to remain silent during an interrogation.
The ruling does not remove the requirement that police “Mirandize” suspects before questioning them. It does, however, shield officers from civil liability if they fail to do so, potentially reducing their incentive to comply.
“That’s the sense in which this is a setback for the full promise of Miranda,” Brett Max Kaufman, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the court’s 6-3 ruling issued June 23 in the case known as Vega v. Tekoh.
No one can be "a witness against himself”
The case stemmed from the interrogation of a suspect by a Los Angeles police officer in 2014.
Terence Tekoh, a nursing assistant, was accused of sexually assaulting a female patient at a hospital. Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega questioned Tekoh without reading him the Miranda warning and obtained a written apology.
Prosecutors later used the statement to charge Tekoh with sexual assault. But after a jury acquitted him, Tekoh sued Vega and others for damages under a civil rights statute known as Section 1983. The law allows individuals to sue state officials over “deprivation” of constitutional rights and privileges.
The case raised a question the Supreme Court had not addressed before: Can a defendant sue a police officer for violating their Constitutional rights by not giving them a Miranda warning?
The U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says no person can be “compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…”
Citing prior court rulings, conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote that Miranda is a “set of rules” designed to protect the Fifth Amendment, rather than a Constitutional right.
“In sum, a violation of Miranda does not necessarily constitute a violation of the Constitution,” Alito wrote for the majority, adding that such a violation is not grounds for bringing a lawsuit under Section 1983.
Alito noted that defendants have the right to have their un-Mirandized statements excluded at trial.
But that remedy is not enough, liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent. Sometimes, she wrote, “a statement will not be suppressed.”
“And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison,” she added.
The ruling brought criticism from civil rights groups.
“After today, people can no longer sue law enforcement for purposefully violating their Miranda right, resulting in officers acting with impunity for their unlawful actions,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a prepared statement.
Original case brought by ACLU
Enshrined in a landmark 1966 Supreme Court case known as Miranda v. Arizona, the “Miranda warning” was designed to ensure that suspects know their rights before making a statement to police.
The case was brought by the ACLU on behalf of Enresto Miranda, an Arizona man convicted of rape and kidnapping based on an involuntary confession.
It came at a time when American police officers faced accusations of using coercive tactics to obtain confessions from suspects.
“There had been a lot of Fifth Amendment violations taking place,” said John Malcolm, vice president for the Institute for Constitutional Government at the Heritage Foundation. “Sometimes you were literally being beaten to get confessions but that was not really most of what was going on. People were being tricked into confessing. They were being told that they really didn’t have a right to have counsel.”
“And the court determined in its infinite wisdom that as a matter of fundamental fairness people needed to know what their rights were before they would find themselves unwittingly giving them up without that knowledge,” Malcolm told VOA.
Ruling in favor of Miranda, the Supreme Court ruled that during an interrogation police officers must advise 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 questioning.”
Reading these rights has since become a mandatory law enforcement practice in the United States. The U.S. is not the only country with Miranda rights. According to the Federation of American Scientists, 108 countries and jurisdictions have some version of the Miranda warning enshrined in their legal systems.