WASHINGTON — If there is one constitutional protection known to anyone with a television set, it is the familiar warning required by the Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona.
But the constitutional status of Miranda warnings has long been contested and remains unclear, as a Supreme Court argument on Wednesday vividly illustrated. 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 brought by Terence B. Tekoh, a hospital attendant who was accused of sexually abusing an immobilized patient receiving an emergency MRI. Mr. Tekoh was questioned at length by Carlos Vega, a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles.
The two men offered starkly divergent accounts of the nature of the questioning, but there was no dispute that Mr. Vega did not give the Miranda warning, that Mr. Tekoh signed a confession admitting to the assault, that a state trial judge admitted his confession into evidence or that a jury acquitted him.
Mr. Tekoh then filed a lawsuit against Mr. Vega under an 1871 federal civil rights law known as Section 1983 that allows citizens to sue state officials, including police officers, over violations of constitutional rights.
The case, Vega v. Tekoh, No. 21-499, was complicated by factual disputes over whether Mr. Tekoh had been in the sort of custody that required a warning or had been subject to coercion. In a Supreme Court brief, Mr. Vega’s lawyers said Mr. Tekoh was contrite and remorseful and wrote his confession without prompting.
A lawyer for Mr. Tekoh, Paul L. Hoffman, gave a very different account on Wednesday. “Mr. Tekoh says he’s put in a closed room for an hour,” Mr. Hoffman said. “He is berated and basically threatened with deportation with an officer with his hand on a gun.”
The justices considered whether Mr. 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.
The debate was largely put to rest in Dickerson v. United States, a 7-to-2 decision in 2000. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, himself a longtime critic of Miranda, wrote for the majority that the warnings had “become embedded in routine police practice” and had “become part of the national culture.”
Since the Miranda decision had “announced a constitutional rule,” he wrote, a statute that sought to overrule it was itself unconstitutional.
But Roman Martinez, a lawyer for Mr. Vega, said a constitutional rule is different from a constitutional right. “Dickerson gives Miranda constitutional status, but it doesn’t say that Miranda creates a Fifth Amendment right.”
Justice Elena Kagan said the court should be wary of limiting the sweep of the Dickerson decision.
“If we come out your way, it will undermine Dickerson,” she told Mr. Martinez.
And that, in turn, she continued, “would have a kind of unsettling effect not only on people’s understanding of the criminal justice system but on people’s understanding of the court itself and the legitimacy of the court and the way the court operates and the way the court sticks to what it says.”
Mr. Martinez responded that he was not asking the court to overrule Miranda or Dickerson but only to say that they had not established the sort of right whose violation could give rise to a suit under the civil rights law.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett said it was significant that Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion in Dickerson had not characterized Miranda warning as a constitutional right. “It seemed very carefully worded to say ‘constitutional rule’ or ‘constitutionally required,’” she said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said his predecessor, whom he had served as a law clerk, had chosen his words carefully. “He didn’t say Miranda is in the Constitution,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “He talked about constitutional underpinnings, constitutional basis.”
There was a second issue in the case, one pressed by Vivek Suri, a lawyer for the federal government arguing in favor of Mr. Vega. What the Miranda decision guaranteed, he said, was that confessions obtained without the required warnings could not be used at trial.
“Miranda recognized a constitutional right, but it’s a trial right concerning the exclusion of evidence at a criminal trial,” he said. “It isn’t a substantive right to receive the Miranda warnings themselves.”
“A police officer who fails to provide the Miranda warnings accordingly doesn’t himself violate the constitutional right,” Mr. Suri said, “and he also isn’t legally responsible for any violation that might occur later at the trial.”
Mr. Hoffman, representing Mr. Tekoh, urged the justices to allow his client to seek to hold Mr. Vega accountable.
“His life was destroyed by these actions,” Mr. Hoffman said. “He gets acquitted. When the full story comes out, he is contending that the officer set him up for this and basically set up the prosecutor and court, too. What remedy does he have?”