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Supreme Court says police can't be sued for not reading out Miranda rights

SHANNON BOND, HOST:

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Most people recognize those lines as the familiar warning officers give a suspect in custody. They're known as Miranda rights. But the Supreme Court ruled last month in a civil case, Vega v. Tekoh, suspects who do not receive a Miranda warning cannot sue an officer for damages. That means suspects have no recourse if they are not reminded of rights protected by the Fifth Amendment, like the right to an attorney and that they can't be forced to incriminate themselves. Ilona Coleman is a public defender and the legal director of the criminal defense practice at The Bronx Defenders. She joins me now. Welcome, Ilona.

ILONA COLEMAN: Hi. Thanks so much, Shannon, for having me.

BOND: So to start off, what is the purpose of providing Miranda rights or a Miranda warning when someone is in police custody?

COLEMAN: So let's just start talking about the Fifth Amendment. That's where we should probably go. The Fifth Amendment guarantees that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself or herself, right? And this is known as the self-incrimination clause. It's a privilege against self-incrimination. But what the Supreme Court was really grappling with - right? - in the 60s was, how do you protect this right when a custodial interrogation is coercive?

BOND: So when police are maybe trying to force a confession out of someone.

COLEMAN: Right. Both psychologically and physically coercive tactics had been used and continue to be used in interrogations even today. And so the Supreme Court in 1966 decided Miranda v. Arizona. And in that case, the court established a right to these affirmative warnings, right. The warnings - one of the warnings that you read there, Shannon, about a right to remain silent. And these warnings have to be given by law enforcement, which are really designed to offset the inherent coercion of custodial interrogation. And the Miranda court really found that when a person is taken into custody and subjected to questioning, the privilege against self-incrimination is jeopardized.

So, for instance, if a police officer is questioning me and doesn't Mirandize me and I'm in custody and I - you know, I confess to something but ultimately that confession is not used at trial, then the Fifth Amendment right isn't actually triggered. So it's actually obtaining a statement of violation and using that statement at trial that actually triggers the Fifth Amendment right.

BOND: Who is most at risk here if this warning is not given by the police?

COLEMAN: It's the young - so teenagers who we see, you know, in many of our cases that come through the criminal justice system. It's also individuals who are intellectually disabled. I've had a number of cases with individuals who are intellectually disabled who are questioned by police in these interrogation settings. It's also people who've never had any contact with the criminal justice system. But really, in general, coercive tactics can be used on anyone in these interrogation settings.

BOND: So what is the impact of this decision?

COLEMAN: The first is that you can't, as a petitioner - right? - as someone who was accused of a crime, and if I'm then acquitted of that crime, I can no longer sue civilly. I can't sue that police officer for violating my Miranda rights. Because I can't sue, it means that that officer will not be held accountable.

BOND: So does this decision mean that officers will no longer be compelled to tell suspects what their rights are in custody?

COLEMAN: The short answer is no. I certainly still believe because you have a criminal process and Miranda still exists - the Supreme Court has overturned that yet. I would say that certainly, in a criminal case, Miranda warnings are certainly still required.

BOND: So it sounds like from your point of view, there's a real harm that's happening here. And the question is, can you then hold any sort of accountability for that harm?

COLEMAN: Yeah, there definitely is. And I think that's really the point, right? And as a petitioner now, I can never bring a claim where I argue there was a violation of my Miranda rights.

BOND: That's Ilona Coleman. She's a public defender and the legal director of the criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders. Thanks so much for joining us.

COLEMAN: Thanks for having me, Shannon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.