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Un-Mirandized Statement May Give Rise to Civil Action - U.S. Court of Appeals

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 13, 2021

Ninth Circuit Contributes to Circuit Split in Civil Rights Law, Holding Police Officer's Obtaining of Un-Mirandized Statement May Give Rise to Civil Action Under § 1983.

In the recent case of Tekoh v. County of Los Angeles, Case No. 18-56414, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff may assert a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for damages against a government official who denied the plaintiff the right against self-incrimination by unlawfully obtaining an un-Mirandized statement. 

The dispute in Tekoh arises from a sexual assault investigation by the Los Angeles Sheriff's department. 

Un-Mirandized Statement May Give Rise to Civil Action
U.S. Court of Appeals rules plaintiff can asset a claim for damages against government official.

Facts of the case 

Tekoh was working in a medical center when a patient accused him of making inappropriate sexual contact with her while she was undergoing treatment. 

Deputy Carlos Vega responded to the call and contacted Tekoh in the MRI section.

What happened next is still in dispute, and was not resolved by the Ninth Circuit. According to Tekoh:

  • Vega ushered him into a closed room;
  • refused to allow him to speak to a lawyer when requested;
  • refused to let him leave, and
  • threatened him with physical harm and deportation – including with repeated racial epithets – if Tekoh did not write out a false confession.

According to Vega, he and Tekoh had a normal, civil conversation during which Tekoh spontaneously expressed guilt and remorse and voluntarily provided a written confession which confirmed the accuser's version of events. 

However, the written confession came to be, it was introduced by the government in Tekoh's jury trial for a violation of California Penal Code § 289(d) – unlawful sexual penetration.

Jury Trails and Claim for Damages

Tekoh's first trial resulted in a mistrial based on a prosecution witness' revelation of undisclosed evidence while on the stand. 

At the second trial, Tekoh presented testimony from an expert in coerced confessions. 

The prosecution relied heavily on Tekoh's confession to Deputy Vega. The jury found Tekoh not guilty. 

Following his acquittal, Tekoh brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Deputy Vega, among other defendants, asserting multiple violations of his constitutional rights. 

As relevant on appeal in the Ninth Circuit, however, Tekoh asserted that he should be compensated for Deputy Vega's violation of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by failing to provide Miranda warnings. 

Two jury trials in federal district court followed:

  • at the first trial, the court found that it had improperly instructed the jury;
  • at the second trial, the parties disagreed over the jury instructions.

Ultimately, the court rejected Tekoh's proposed jury instruction which would have stated that a Miranda violation alone is sufficient to find a constitutional rights violation in favor of a coerced confession instruction which treated a Miranda violation as merely one factor among others to consider. 

Appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

After the second trial, the jury again ruled for Deputy Vega. Tekoh appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the district court improperly stated the law by failing to instruct the jury that a Miranda violation itself gives rise to an action under § 1983.

Tekoh's appeal implicated the longstanding disagreement between justices of the Supreme Court, and among the lower courts, over whether the familiar Miranda warnings given to criminal suspects are constitutionally required or are a mere prophylactic rule outside the scope of the Fifth Amendment's protections.

This distinction is far more than academic in cases such as Tekoh's, because § 1983 damages are only available for the violation of constitutional rights.

The Ninth Circuit panel extensively reviewed the complicated, and at times confusing, history of this dispute, which is only briefly summarized here. 

Before and after Miranda 

Before Miranda, voluntariness was the sole consideration in admissibility of confessions. 

Miranda Rights
Courts have ruled failure to give Miranda was enough to suppress incriminating statement.

After Miranda, however, courts began finding that failure to give the required warnings was usually enough to suppress a suspect's incriminating statement, even without additional proof that the suspect's will was overborne. 

One reading of the Miranda decision, therefore, was that the warnings required by the Supreme Court's decision were merely re-statements of the Fifth Amendment's guarantee, i.e. an un-Mirandized confession was per se involuntary and therefore constitutionally prohibited.

Another fair reading was that the court had merely announced a prophylactic rule and that other guarantees of voluntariness or procedural safeguards might adequately address the concerns which prompted Miranda

Under this reading, Miranda warnings are not a constitutionally-required procedure, but simply one of a number of options which the states might adopt to ensure that the Fifth Amendment's voluntariness guarantee is observed.

Dickerson v. United States

In Dickerson v. United States, the Supreme Court had invalidated a post-Miranda federal statute which purported to make confessions admissible so long as they were voluntarily made, regardless of whether Miranda warnings were given. 

In striking down the statute, the Supreme Court described Miranda as a “constitutional decision.” 

While the Dickerson holding would appear to have settled the dispute as to the status of Miranda, subsequent decisions complicated the analysis.

Other Supreme Court Decisions on Miranda

In United States v. Patane, the Supreme Court permitted the introduction into evidence of physical evidence found as a result of an un-Mirandized interrogation of a suspect. 

Justice Thomas, writing for a plurality, described Miranda as going beyond the scope of the self-incrimination protection of the constitution. 

In Chavez v. Martinez, the Supreme Court held that § 1983 damages were unavailable to a plaintiff who wished to sue an officer for failing to give Miranda warnings even though he had never been charged with a crime. 

The Chavez court found that the plaintiff could not sue because:

  • without the initiation of criminal proceedings,
  • he had suffered no constitutional harm.

In writing its opinion, however, the Chavez plurality characterized Miranda as a prophylactic rule which protects, but is not co-extensive with, the Fifth Amendment's protections. 

The violation of such a judicially created rule, according to Chavez, cannot give rise to a § 1983 action.

Circuit Split on Civil Rights and Constitutional Law

Attempting to harmonize these seemingly contradictory precedents, the Tekoh panel held that Miranda is a constitutional, not prophylactic, rule, the violation of which can give rise to a § 1983 suit, but only in the case of a defendant whose un-Mirandized statements are used against him in a criminal trial. 

In so holding, the Ninth Circuit joins the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits. 

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged the Eighth Circuit's contrary holding that, based on Chavez, the Miranda warnings are not in of themselves a constitutionally protected right. 

Tekoh is an important decision which contributes to a persistent circuit split on this important issue of civil rights and constitutional law.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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