If there is one constitutional protection known to anyone with a television set, it is the warning required by the Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona. The constitutional status of Miranda warnings has long been contested and remains unclear, as a Supreme Court argument Wednesday illustrated, reports the New York Times. In considering whether police officers may be sued for failing to administer the warning, the justices debated whether the Miranda decision had established a constitutional right or something less concrete. The question arose in a civil rights case by Terence Tekoh, a hospital attendant who was accused of sexually abusing an immobilized patient receiving an emergency MRI. Tekoh was questioned by Carlos Vega, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles.
The two men offered starkly divergent accounts of the questioning, but there was no dispute that Vega did not give the Miranda warning, that Tekoh signed a confession admitting to the assault, that a judge admitted his confession into evidence or that a jury acquitted him. Tekoh sued Vega under an 1871 federal civil rights law known as Section 1983 that allows citizens to sue state officials over violations of constitutional rights. The case was complicated by factual disputes over whether Tekoh had been in the sort of custody that required a warning or had been subject to coercion. Vega’s lawyers said Tekoh was contrite and remorseful and wrote his confession without prompting. A lawyer for Tekoh, Paul Hoffman, gave a very different account on Wednesday. “Mr. Tekoh says he’s put in a closed room for an hour,” Hoffman said. “He is berated and basically threatened with deportation with an officer with his hand on a gun.” The justices considered whether Tekoh could sue even if he could prove his version of events. That turned on the constitutional status of Miranda, which had been the subject of much criticism in the 1980s and ’90s and a congressional effort to overturn it.