Most anyone who’s watched TV or movies in this country can recite it by heart: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.” This warning, required before being interrogated by the police, goes by one word: Miranda.
That name of the warnings comes from a 1967 Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona. That is the case that said the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination requires these warnings because otherwise police could take advantage of suspects and coerce them into saying things they might not otherwise.
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For more than half a century, these warnings have seeped into popular consciousness. But on Thursday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority gutted them in a way that will give police much more leeway to coerce suspects without them knowing their rights.
To understand what today’s case is about, you need to understand how Miranda warnings work. If a suspect receives the warnings, the suspect’s statements can be used in court when the suspect is prosecuted. However, if the police do not “Mirandize” the suspect, generally the suspect’s statements can not be used against them in court, making it more difficult to prosecute the suspect.
That part of Miranda remains unchanged. However, there was another part of Miranda that was obliterated in Thursday’s ruling. The other way to hold police accountable and make sure they follow the law is to sue them in federal court. Such lawsuits, under a federal law called section 1983, allow people whose constitutional rights have been violated to sue the state officials who violate them and receive money as a result. The goal is not to enrich the person suing, but rather to provide a strong disincentive for state officials to violate people’s rights. Section 1983 is one of the most powerful tools in American law to prevent state abuse of power.
The case decided Thursday, Vega v. Tekoh, ruled that Miranda rights are actually not technically constitutional rights but rather merely a prophylactic constitutional rule. Thus, although a suspect can still prevent their statement from being used in court after today’s ruling, now people can’t sue the police for failing to provide this warning.
Why is that such a loss? Here’s Justice Kagan in dissent explaining it: “Sometimes, such a statement will not be suppressed. And sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison. He may succeed, on appeal or in habeas, in getting the conviction reversed. But then, what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered? The point of section 1983 is to provide such redress—because a remedy ‘is a vital component of any scheme for vindicating cherished constitutional guarantees.’ The majority here, as elsewhere, injures the right by denying the remedy.”
The big question going forward is how much further damage this conservative Court is going to do to Miranda. These warnings have been in the crosshairs of the conservative legal movement for decades, almost since the day the original decision came out. There have been constant attempts to whittle away the precedent. Conservatives thought they were going to succeed in overturning it entirely when Congress passed a law essentially saying police don’t have to give the warnings. The Supreme Court in 2000, which was also conservative but less so than the current one, surprised everyone by reaffirming Miranda and striking down the statute.
In some ways, that decision should have ended the matter, but not for this group of new Justices. To them, all liberal precedent is open for re-working. And today’s decision, though it doesn’t overturn Miranda outright, signals that six Justices do not believe the warnings are a right that the legal system needs to respect in the way it does constitutional rights.
In ruling this way, the Justices are inviting even more challenges, challenges that might one day, if the Court remains this conservative, obliterate the precedent entirely.
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