It is a mantra that fans of American cop shows around the world can recite 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.
To be clear, the ruling doesn’t 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 June 23 in the case known as Vega v. Tekoh.
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 key question before the Supreme Court was whether failure to read the Miranda warning constitutes a violation of the U.S Constitution’s Fifth Amendment that could be litigated under Section 1983.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said it did not.
“In sum, a violation of Miranda does not necessarily constitute a violation of the Constitution,” Alito wrote, adding that a Miranda violation is not grounds for bringing a lawsuit under Section 1983.
Instead, a defendant’s “remedy” is to have his or her statement excluded at trial. But Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the three dissenting liberal justices, noted that “sometimes such a statement will not be suppressed.”
“And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison,” she wrote.
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.
Enshrined in a landmark 1966 Supreme Court case known as Miranda v. Arizona, the “Miranda warning” was designed to prevent coercive police interrogative tactics.
Brought by Enresto Miranda, an Arizona man convicted of rape and kidnapping based on a forced confession, the case exposed widespread police use of coercive tactics and even violence to obtain incriminating evidence 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.
Siding with Miranda, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment required that police officers must advise “the defendant of the right to remain silent and the right to speak with an attorney before the interrogation started.”
That started what 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.