SCOTUS: Police Officers Have Right To Remain Silent When It Comes To Miranda Warnings
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions. You have the right to have a lawyer with you during questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. If you decide to answer questions now without a lawyer present, you have the right to stop answering at any time.
Alas, you no longer have the constitutional right to be read these rights by police officers before being taken into custody.
In one of the most horrific decisions in a week of horrific decisions, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that people do not have a constitutional right to be read their rights nor do they have the right to sue police officers who do not read them.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by the five other conservative justices, ruled that depriving someone of their Miranda Rights "is not itself a violation of the Fifth Amendment."
Justice Elena Kagan, who has actually historically sided with conservative justices with regards to Miranda specifically and criminal justice in general, wrote the dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, arguing that the decision deprives "individuals of the ability to seek a remedy for violations of the right recognized in Miranda."
Which it does.
This is an incredibly big deal with potentially huge consequences. Despite what we have frequently been led to believe by television programs, a failure to read a defendant their Miranda rights does not mean everything that comes from violating their Miranda rights is necessarily suppressed. While a post-arrest confession from a defendant who has not been Mirandized can't be submitted as evidence, it can be used during trial to impeach their testimony.
So, say for instance you have one of those delightful situations where police interrogate a suspect without a lawyer for hours and hours, using the Reid Technique and telling them over and over again that they have absolute proof that they committed the crime and that if they don't confess they'll go to prison forever and ever and then eventually the suspect confesses because they're scared and exhausted and the police told them they could go home if they just confessed. They confess to the exact scenario the police set up for them.
Now, the confession can be thrown out because the suspect wasn't Mirandized, but if they then testify in court — if they are innocent and tell the court what really happened — and it differs from the confession, that can then be brought up to "prove" that they are lying. Additionally, confessions given without the suspect being properly Mirandized are not subject to the "fruit of the poisonous tree" rule. If the suspect gives the police information that can be independently verified, even if there is no other way that information would have come to light, it can be used in court against them. If the questioning leads them to a witness, that witness may testify at trial. It also only matters if the case goes to trial.
Removing the ability of the defendant to sue police officers who fail to give them a Miranda Warning takes away pretty much any incentive they may have to actually give them the warning in the first place, particularly in cases where they stand to benefit more from not doing so. It's rare for police officers to be disciplined in any way for failing to Mirandize a suspect.
Earlier this week, by the way, the Supreme Court also effectively overturned Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, ruling that people can no longer sue Federal law enforcement for violating their constitutional rights. Or for trying to murder them for personal reasons unrelated to their work, as they have "absolute immunity."
The justices announced today—exactly 51 years after the Court handed down Bivens—that they would decline to consider two major petitions. In the first, St. Paul Police Department Officer Heather Weyker, who was serving on a federal task force, conjured a fake sex-trafficking ring and jailed a teenage girl for two years on trumped-up charges. In the second, Department of Homeland Security Agent Ray Lamb allegedly tried to kill a man who had a personal beef with Lamb's son; video appears to show Lamb attempting to pull the trigger of his gun, though it jammed.
Federal courts in both cases agreed with what may sound intuitive: Both Weyker and Lamb violated clearly established law. They are thus not protected by qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that can make it difficult to sue local and state actors when they violate the Constitution. But because they were working for the federal government, they are protected by absolute immunity, the courts said, and their victims—Hamdi Mohamud and Kevin Byrd, respectively—may not sue them for disgracing their positions.
The lack of consequences means the lack of a right. If people cannot sue officers who violate this right, if police officers are not disciplined in any meaningful way for violating it, then the right no longer really exists. In so many cases in the US, the only way we have to assert our rights is through civil litigation. There aren't laws that actually bar people from firing someone for discriminatory reasons — the only way there are consequences is if the person knows about it and sues. In lieu of safety regulations in many areas, we let businesses do what they want and let people sue them when it goes wrong (and then, obviously, whine about how litigious people are). In the United States, when you take away the right to sue someone for violating your rights, you lose that right.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse