In a case decided last week, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling on Miranda rights that has some advocates and legal experts concerned.
The ruling makes it impossible to sue a police officer for a Miranda violation. Experts say this could undermine constitutional rights stipulated in the Fifth Amendment and reduce police accountability.
However, the leaders of several local law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area say the ruling is no big deal.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter and St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said the ruling changes nothing about their organizations’ operations and practices.
Miranda warnings still are legally required, they said, so their officers still will read them to arrested suspects. And though officers can’t be sued for failing to read the rights, there remains a strong incentive to do so.
If Miranda isn’t read prior to an interrogation, law enforcement can’t build a criminal case against a suspect; statements obtained without Miranda warnings can’t be used in court.
That’s a primary motivation for officers to read them, Gualtieri said.
“The consequence is suppression of evidence,” he said. “The consequence is that all their work, all their effort, is for naught.”
Holloway said the lack of personal legal consequences for officers who fail to read Miranda won’t disincentivize anyone in his department.
“If the officer wants to make sure that he or she has a strong case against the person they just arrested, then they need to read Miranda,” he said.
Police practice might have changed in a tangible way if the court ruled that Miranda was no longer mandatory, Slaughter wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
“Since current case law still requires it we are committed to following the law,” Slaughter wrote.
Reading Miranda already is a habitual standard for police officers and deputies, according to Gualtieri. The rights are a pillar of American policing, embedded even in movies and TV. They probably sound familiar — if you’re questioned by police, you have the right to remain silent and you have the right to an attorney.
Police must inform a suspect under custodial interrogation that anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law. That standard is unchanged by the court’s decision, Gualtieri said.
“They shouldn’t do anything different than what they’ve always done,” he said of his deputies.
Judith Scully, a criminal law professor at the Stetson University College of Law, is more wary of the ruling’s implications.
In last week’s case, Vega v. Tekoh, the court ruled that a violation of Miranda does not equal a violation of the Fifth Amendment. It’s only a constitutional violation, the court said, if an officer uses coercive methods like physical violence to get information from a suspect.
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The decision means that while everyone has Fifth Amendment rights, there’s no constitutional obligation to inform someone of those rights.
Though Gualtieri, Holloway and Slaughter are confident the court’s decision will not weaken police accountability or threaten good practice, Scully sees a worrying trend.
“The court has been whittling away at Miranda rights for decades now,” she said. “We’ve been on that slippery slope for 30 years.”
In Vega v. Tekoh, Scully said, the outcome rests on a legal technicality. According to hospital worker Terrence Tekoh, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega failed to read him his Miranda warnings and forced him to make a false confession. Tekoh said Vega flashed his gun and threatened him with deportation.
Tekoh then sued Vega for violating his constitutional rights. However, verbal threats and aggression don’t count as coercion to the Supreme Court, Scully said, so they don’t count as Fifth Amendment violations.
“They recognize the police officers’ conduct as being unethical, perhaps even unacceptable, but they are not willing to say that it’s unconstitutional,” she said. “They draw a distinction between ethics, acceptability and constitutionality.”
The result of that distinction, Scully said, is that police officers are given “way too much discretion in terms of how they behave.”
By drawing a line between the Miranda warnings themselves and the constitutional rights they announce, the Supreme Court gives undue leeway to police and weakens civilian protections, she said.
“There is an evisceration of the Miranda doctrine that is taking place,” she said. While that doesn’t mean the Fifth Amendment itself is under fire, Scully said, there’s still cause for concern.
Sheriff Gualtieri wouldn’t agree.
“The ruling is irrelevant,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”