The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday shielded police from the risk of paying money damages for failing to advise criminal suspects of their rights before obtaining statements later used against them in court, siding with a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff.
The justices ruled 6-3 in favor of deputy sheriff Carlos Vega, who had appealed a lower court decision reviving a lawsuit by a hospital employee named Terence Tekoh who accused the officer of violating his rights under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
Tekoh was charged with sexually assaulting a hospital patient after Vega obtained a written confession from him without first informing the suspect of his rights through so-called Miranda warnings. Tekoh was acquitted at trial.
The court's six conservatives were in the majority in the ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito, with its three liberal members dissenting.
The rights at issue were delineated in the Supreme Court's landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling that, under the Fifth Amendment, police among other things must tell criminal suspects of their right to remain silent and have a lawyer present during interrogations before any statements they make may be used in a criminal trial.
Vega was backed by President Joe Biden's administration in the appeal.
At issue was whether the use in court of statements collected from suspects who have not been given a Miranda warning may give rise to a civil lawsuit against the investigating officer under a federal law that lets people sue government officials for violating their constitutional rights.
Vega in 2014 investigated a claim by a Los Angeles hospital patient that Tekoh, who worked as an attendant at the facility, had touched her inappropriately while she was incapacitated on a hospital bed. Vega said Tekoh voluntarily offered a written confession even though he was not under arrest or in custody.
Tekoh disputes Vega's version of events and contends that he was interrogated by Vega, who coerced a false confession.
Tekoh was arrested and charged in state court with sexual assault. His incriminating statement was admitted as evidence during the trial, but a jury acquitted him. Tekoh then sued Vega in federal court, accusing the officer of violating his Fifth Amendment rights by extracting an incriminating statement without Miranda warnings, leading it to be used against him in a criminal prosecution.
The jury reached a verdict in favor of Vega, but the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021 ordered a new trial on the officer's liability.
The 9th Circuit found that using a statement taken without a Miranda warning against a defendant in a criminal trial violates the Fifth Amendment, giving rise to a claim for monetary damages against the officer who obtains the statement.
Appealing to the Supreme Court, Vega's attorneys said in a legal filing that the 9th Circuit's decision threatened to "saddle police departments nationwide with extraordinary burdens in connection with lawful and appropriate investigative work." Vega's lawyers added that "virtually any police interaction with a criminal suspect" might lead to liability for officers.