Criminal Justice

Vega v. Tekoh

In Vega v. Tekoh, the Supreme Court is considering whether police officers who detain and question suspects without providing Miranda warnings can be held accountable when the statements they obtain are used against those suspects in a criminal trial.

Case Summary

In 2014, police officer Carlos Vega took Terrence Tekoh into a small windowless room where Tekoh worked and questioned him about a reported crime. He did not warn Tekoh about his right to remain silent or his right to an attorney, as required under the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona. The statements Tekoh made were later introduced as evidence in his criminal prosecution. After the prosecution ended in an acquittal, Tekoh sued Officer Vega under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that authorizes damages actions against state and local officials for constitutional violations, alleging that Vega violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed, holding that Vega caused an un-Mirandized statement to be used at trial, violating Tekoh’s constitutional rights and allowing a claim under Section 1983. The Supreme Court agreed to review this decision, and CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Tekoh.

Our brief shows that under the original understanding of the Fifth Amendment, Vega participated in the deprivation of Tekoh’s constitutional rights. Vega argues that the Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment is only a rule for prosecutors and courts, not for police—a rule that limits the admission of compelled statements as evidence in a trial but does not directly regulate police interrogations. He also maintains that Miranda warnings are not required by the Fifth Amendment, meaning that it does not necessarily violate the Constitution to use an un-Mirandized statement at trial. Our brief shows why these arguments are at odds with the text and history of the Amendment.

When the Fifth Amendment was ratified, it was understood to be safeguarding a right against self-incrimination that had long existed under the common law. And that common law right functioned as a direct limit on how officials questioned suspected offenders. Its protections were not limited to trial, but instead restrained officials from using coercive interrogation practices to obtain pretrial confessions. The common law recognized that certain methods of interrogation were inherently coercive and were therefore off-limits, including placing suspects under oath before requiring them to answer questions. The Miranda decision similarly recognizes that interrogating suspects who are in police custody—a practice that was not allowed during the Framing era—is inherently coercive, and it requires police to warn detainees about their rights in order to alleviate that inherent coercion.

Our brief goes on to show that the Framers adopted the Self-Incrimination Clause to prevent legislative innovations that would undermine the common law right against self-incrimination—including its ban on coercive pretrial interrogation. As we then demonstrate, the text of the Fifth Amendment reflects the Framers’ broad goals, and nothing in that text reduces the Self-Incrimination Clause to a mere rule of evidence for prosecutors and courts.

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