Interrogation in Jail or Prison Isn’t Always “Custodial”

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Under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), before an officer may begin a custodial interrogation of a suspect, the officer must advise the suspect of certain rights, such as the right to remain silent. One might think that when an officer questions a jail or prison inmate, the setting is necessarily custodial. The case of Mathis v. United States, 391 U. S. 1 (1968), can be read to support that conclusion. However, the recent case of Maryland v. Shatzer, __ U.S. __, 130 S. Ct. 1213 (2010), which I discussed here, suggested otherwise. Yesterday, the Court addressed the issue head on in Howes v. Fields.

The facts of the case, drawn from the Court’s syllabus, are as follows:

Fields, a Michigan [jail inmate, who was serving a sentence as opposed to awaiting trial], was escorted from his . . . cell by a corrections officer to a conference room where he was questioned by two sheriff’s deputies about [a sex crime he had allegedly committed against a child] before coming to [jail]. At no time was Fields given Miranda warnings or advised that he did not have to speak with the deputies. As relevant here: Fields was questioned for between five and seven hours; Fields was told more than once that he was free to leave and return to his cell; the deputies were armed, but Fields remained free of restraints; the conference room door was sometimes open and sometimes shut; several times during the interview Fields stated that he no longer wanted to talk to the deputies, but he did not ask to go back to his cell; after Fields confessed and the interview concluded, he had to wait an additional 20 minutes for an escort and returned to his cell well after the hour when he generally retired.

The defendant was subsequently charged with a sex offense. He moved to suppress his statements, alleging a Miranda violation, but the trial court denied the motion, finding that he was not in custody during the interview. The defendant was convicted, and his appeals in state court were unsuccessful. He sought, and initially obtained, federal habeas relief. The Supreme Court then reversed, agreeing with the state courts that the defendant was not in custody when he was questioned.

In an opinion written by Justice Alito, the Court specifically rejected the lower federal courts’ conclusion that an inmate is always in custody when questioned in private about crimes allegedly committed outside jail or prison. For three reasons, it rejected the idea that incarceration always carries with it the pressures Miranda was designed to combat:

First, questioning a person who is already serving a prison term does not generally involve the shock that very often accompanies arrest. . . . Second, a prisoner, unlike a person who has not been sentenced to a term of incarceration, is unlikely to be lured into speaking by a longing for prompt release. . . . Third, a prisoner, unlike a person who has not been convicted and sentenced, knows that the law enforcement officers who question him probably lack the authority to affect the duration of his sentence.

Applying a totality of the circumstances analysis, the Court found that the defendant was not in custody. It especially emphasized that he “was told at the outset of the interrogation, and was reminded again thereafter, that he could leave and go back to his cell whenever he wanted,” but also noted that the conference room door was sometimes open, that the defendant was not restrained, and that he was offered food and drink. The Court determined that a reasonable person in such circumstances would have felt comfortable terminating the interview and asking to return to his cell.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented. (Technically, they concurred in part, but the partial concurrence concerns federal habeas issues I’ve omitted because they’re not relevant to the central issue.) She criticized the majority’s “custody within custody” approach, and argued that the defendant was interrogated in a police-dominated environment and should have been given Miranda warnings. She highlighted the fact that the defendant’s statements that he did not want to talk to the officers were ignored.

The basic holding of Fields – that incarceration isn’t always “custody” for Miranda purposes – isn’t surprising after Shatzer, but it is still significant. Note, however, that Fields repeatedly distinguishes inmates who are serving a sentence from those in pretrial custody. There’s nothing in Fields to support the idea that a pretrial detainee isn’t in custody, or that pretrial incarceration constitutes a “break in custody” for Shatzer purposes.

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