Legal Update: Supreme Court clarifies standards for challenging firearms regulations, custodial interrogations, and death penalty methods under 42 USC § 1983

Authored by Amily Imbrogno

As the Supreme Court’s October 2021 term ends, the majority of media attention given to the Court focuses on women’s rights issues.  However, while they may arouse less emotional response than decisions relating to reproductive rights, the Court’s decisions in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen (about firearms regulations), Vega v. Tekoh, (about Miranda warnings), and Nance v. Ward (about the death penalty) all broadly affect the contours of civil rights litigation and are worth the attention of not only individuals and litigators, but of law enforcement, law makers, and government officials at all levels.

In New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n Inc. v. Bruen, the Court struck down the State of New York’s law making it a crime to possess a firearm without a license, while an individual could only obtain a license to carry a firearm outside his or her home if he or she could prove that “proper cause” to carry outside the home existed. This meant that he or she must “demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.”

The Court held that its precedent does not call for lower courts to apply a “balancing test” used in most Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence.  Instead, courts are to assess “whether modern firearms regulations are consistent with the Second Amendment’s text and historical understanding.” The Court reasoned that historical analysis is more legitimate and more administrable than asking judges, who usually lack expertise in the firearms field, to make judgments about the costs and benefits of firearms restrictions, which is what they are required to do when applying strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, or rational basis review. Therefore, judges must first assess whether modern and historical regulations impose a comparable burden on the right of armed self-defense as the regulation being considered, and then whether the regulatory burden is “comparably justified.”

In applying this test, the Court found that the government had not met its burden in showing that the “proper cause” requirement was consistent with the United States’ historical tradition of firearms regulation. The Court also noted that individuals are not required to demonstrate some “special need” before exercising any of their other constitutional rights, like that to free speech. It stated that individuals should not have to prove a “special need” when it comes to “carrying in public for self-defense.” Therefore, the “proper cause” requirement violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

This decision has several implications, but of note is the Court’s statement that there is a right to “public carry for self-defense.”  No doubt that this will lead to several challenges to firearms regulations, and the lower courts will be tasked with defining what this means.  Also, the decision suggests that the Court will be less willing to apply balancing tests like strict scrutiny and rational basis review to challenges made under the Fourteenth Amendment and may instead focus on historical perspectives.

In Vega v. Tekoh, the Court considered whether a violation of the rules set forth in Miranda v. Arizona can serve as the basis of a Section 1983 claim for money damages.  The plaintiff, who had been acquitted at trial of a charge of unlawful sexual penetration, argued that inclusion into evidence of a confession obtained during custodial interrogation without first providing Miranda warnings was an actionable violation of his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s holding that a plaintiff can establish a violation of the Fifth Amendment simply based on a showing that Miranda had been violated.  The Court has long held that the rules adopted in Miranda are merely prophylactic, and that they are needed to safeguard the right against compelled self-incrimination during custodial interrogation.  However, while the Miranda rule is constitutional in nature, the failure to read Miranda warnings prior to custodial interrogation is not tantamount to a constitutional violation.  Instead, the relevant inquiry remains as whether the suspect was actually subjected to compelled self-incrimination.

Because a prophylactic rule should only apply as a vehicle for a damages claim under Section 1983 if its benefits outweigh its costs, the Court held that a violation of the rules set forth in Miranda v. Arizona cannot support a Section 1983 claim against an officer who obtained a statement without first providing an individual with proper Miranda warnings. To hold otherwise would have little deterrent value, disserve judicial economy, and create procedural issues.

Vega’s impact on Section 1983 litigation is to be determined, and it remains important to preserve any affirmative defenses relating to collateral estoppel, res judicata, and Heck v. Humphrey in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure.   

Finally, in Nance v. Ward, the Court held that Section 1983 remains an appropriate vehicle for a prisoner’s “method of execution” claim where the prisoner proposes an alternative method of execution not authorized by his or her state’s death penalty statute. To hold otherwise, and require a prisoner to bring “method of execution” claims as claims for habeas relief, would lead to inconsistent results in different states.