‘Dangerous to what’s left of democracy’: Atlanta civil rights lawyer Mawuli Davis explains Miranda’s decision


Imagine being accused of a crime. You are transported to a police station. Your repeated requests for a lawyer remain a dead letter. You spend hours at the police station because the police won’t let you out. At no time during the meeting are you told about your constitutional rights, commonly known as Miranda rights. The case against you is then dropped.

Can you sue in civil court for not reading your rights? Not anymore, the US Supreme Court ruled last month.

Mawuli Mel Davis

“There is no civility [remedy] after [a person’s] been injured. They may have been judged. They may even have been falsely convicted. And the statement was obtained illegally,” said Atlanta civil rights and criminal defense attorney Mawuli Mel Davis. Atlanta Civic Circle. “And there is no way to remedy this injury.”

The Supreme Court‘s decision weakened a key part of the Fifth Amendment, the constitutional shield that gives you the right not to incriminate yourself. The high court ruled that failing to read someone their rights does not violate the Fifth Amendment, and therefore police officers cannot be prosecuted for failing to issue Miranda’s warnings before interrogations.

Davis said the decision was damaging because it could further embolden law enforcement in the future.

“It removes the civil deterrent for law enforcement not to violate the rights of people in Miranda,” he explained.This will be discussed in police stations across the country. The message it sends is “Hey, I can, as a police officer, violate this long-established right and have no civil consequences”.

Davis is familiar with the legal terrain as a founding partner of Davis Bozeman Johnson Law. For nearly three decades, he has represented victims of police brutality and those falsely accused of crimes. He has also represented activists from the Occupy movement, Moral Monday and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Miranda’s Warning is a nearly 60-year-old requirement that police must inform anyone they arrest of their constitutional rights.

The name comes from the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona case in which the Supreme Court ruled that you cannot be questioned when detained by police until you are informed of your right to remain silent, consult a lawyer and have a lawyer assist you during questioning by the police. You also have the right to have a lawyer appointed if you cannot afford one.

The June 23 Supreme Court decision in Vega vs Tekoh now grants civil immunity to police officers who fail to mirandize people.

The decision stems from an incident in 2014 when Terence Tekoh was accused of sexually assaulting a patient at the hospital where he worked. Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Carlos Vega interrogated Tekoh alone in a small room in the hospital and, according to Tekoh, coerced him into writing a false confession after physically stopping him from leaving, ignoring his request lawyer and threatened to deport Tekoh and his family back to Cameroon.

Both men agree that Tekoh did not read his rights. Tekoh was later arrested, tried and acquitted by a California jury.

“He should have been able to bring a civil action against the officer for intimidating him,” Davis said because the officer violated his right to remain silent or have an attorney while in police custody, but the Supreme Court has just ruled otherwise.

“It’s like saying that when your Miranda rights are violated, you can’t pursue a civil action. Civil suits are a form of deterrence against the violation of people’s constitutional rights, because [police] be aware that there may be civil consequences against them. It no longer exists because of this [Supreme Court decision].”

Davis spoke to Atlanta Civic Circle on the impact of the High Court decision on average citizens, lawyers and democracy. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Tammy Joyner: When should the police read you your Miranda rights during a meeting? Is it if they just want to ask questions or just arrest you?

Mawuli Mel Davis: The police are only required to read your Miranda rights if you are in custody. It means you are not free to leave and they are interrogating you. So if you get arrested, but they don’t ask you any questions, they don’t have to read you your Miranda rights.

On the other hand, if the police approach you on the street and start what we call a consensual conversation – where it’s just, “Hey, can I ask you a few questions? – if you’re not handcuffed, or in the back of a police car, or locked in a police station, and you’re free to go, they don’t have to read you your Miranda rights.

The question we encourage people to ask before answering questions is, “Excuse me, officer, am I free to go?”

If they say yes, walk away. Do not answer any questions. If they say no, then you say, “I would like a lawyer to be here to answer all your questions.

We discourage people from consenting to searches or making statements because we’ve seen cases where people try to be helpful and end up being arrested and charged for things they didn’t do.

What is the biggest lesson to be learned from the Supreme Court’s decision on Miranda’s rights?

This removes the ability of someone who has been wronged in regards to their Miranda rights. You have no cure for it. They may have been judged. They may even have been falsely convicted and the statement obtained illegally. Yet there is [now] no way to remedy this injury. It goes against our civil rights as citizens.

Does this weaken an individual’s protection in a confrontation with the police?

It’s not. Legally, when you meet the police, the law remains. The problem is that if it is violated, there is no civil remedy.

How does the Supreme Court’s decision on Miranda change a person’s interaction with the police?

The law itself remains in place. It can be asserted and must be asserted at all times.

We educate young people about their rights. We have been teaching it for over a decade. And we are always very clear that no matter what, young people – people in general – should not engage with law enforcement or give statements without a lawyer. That’s the basics, whether you’re walking down the street or they’re arresting you at school. You have the right to remain silent. So that hasn’t changed.

But civil liability for breaches has changed. When in contact with law enforcement, we encourage people not to consent to searches and not to provide statements, as these are rights that must be protected.

Does the Supreme Court decision affect your ability to help your clients?

It is a tool that has been taken away from lawyers and citizens to hold law enforcement accountable for police misconduct. Every time a tool like this is taken down, it emboldens law enforcement and jeopardizes the freedom of ordinary citizens.

What advice do you give your clients following recent Supreme Court rulings?

I encourage them to be intentional. The sands of justice are moving. We have to do the work of rregain our footing and ensure that we are able to organize ourselves and push back against the increasingly right-wing approach to law and order – and the justice system.

Those who want to see a more democratic and equitable society must be prepared to do the hard work of organizing. This will not happen by accident, or by relying on the humanity and righteousness of individuals who have never demonstrated it.

Is this the biggest Miranda change you’ve seen?

Yes. This reaffirms the importance of the appointment of judges. Judges have an incredible impact at the local level and, of course, at the national level.

Elections are important because they determine lifetime appointments to the highest court in the land. You have to be very careful during these processes, as we saw recently with Roe v. Wade.

Which brings us to the larger question. How do you interpret the other recent Supreme Court decisions, namely Roe v. Wade, regarding civil liberties, personal rights and privacy?

This is a significant shift in a much more conservative direction that has the potential to reshape the landscape of our freedom and rights in this country for the next 50 years. These decisions are dangerous for what remains of democracy.

HOW TO STAY SAFE WHEN STOPPED BY THE POLICE

  • Don’t be confrontational. Stay calm. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t get animated.
  • Don’t run and don’t resist. Running creates a risk that leads to other dangerous situations.
  • Know that anything you say can and will be used against you.
  • Make sure your phone is charged and has enough memory at all times to be able to record interactions with the police. Record the incident from a safe distance.
  • If you are arrested, ask, “Officer, am I free to go?”
  • If the police try to search you, tell them, “I don’t consent to a search.”
  • If you’re asked for a statement, tell them, “I don’t consent to a statement without an attorney present.”

Source: Lawyer Mawuli Mel Davis

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