My choice of topic for today’s post may or may not have been influenced by the fact that I’m growing a beard. Reviews are mixed, ranging from nonspecific acknowledgment (“You have a beard!”) to good-natured derision (“Did you lose a bet?”). Jeff says I’m a pair of skinny jeans away from becoming a hipster. Kidding aside, today’s post is about the serious subject of whether prison officials must permit an inmate to grow a beard in accordance with his sincere religious beliefs. The Supreme Court held this week in Holt v. Hobbs that they must. Continue reading
Tag Archives: inmates
Last week I wrote about how jails sometimes seek to limit medical expenses by having an inmate released. Today’s post is about the related issue of “refusing” an inmate on the front end when it appears he or she is in need of immediate medical attention. Common scenarios include a person who is injured in the course of committing a crime, or an impaired driver who is very drunk. Can the sheriff’s office refuse to accept such a person into the jail? And if so, does that refusal relieve the county of liability for the costs of the person’s care?
Under G.S. 15-126, “every sheriff or jailer to whose jail any person shall be committed by any court or magistrate of competent jurisdiction shall receive such prisoner and give a receipt for him, and be bound for his safekeeping as prescribed by law.” That law indicates that the jail has no choice but to receive a person—even a very sick, very intoxicated, or seriously injured person—once a judicial official has committed him or her to the sheriff’s custody. (Of course, if the person is in bad enough shape, the initial appearance should be delayed. G.S. 15A-511(a)(3) (allowing the initial appearance to be delayed for a reasonable time if a defendant is unruly, unconscious, or grossly intoxicated).)
G.S. 15-126 does not, however, require the sheriff to take every inmate with a signed release order into the jail itself. A sheriff or jail administrator might reasonably have a standing order requiring immediate diversion of would-be inmates with, among other things, certain types of injuries, or a blood alcohol concentration above a particular limit. Such rules are permissible and often sensible, but they generally do not operate to relieve the county of liability for the costs of emergency medical care under G.S. 153A-224(b) once a judicial official has placed the defendant in the sheriff’s legal custody.
What about defendants who haven’t yet appeared before a judicial official? Is the county responsible for the costs of their care? The answer appears to be sometimes, depending on the circumstances of the person’s arrest.
The leading case in this area is Spicer v. Williamson, 191 N.C. 487 (1926). In Spicer, a sheriff’s deputy shot and wounded a man who had resisted his arrest for a robbery. Recognizing that the man was in bad shape, the deputy took him directly to the hospital for surgery. The hospital sued the county for the costs of care. The county argued that it was not liable because the man was not actually confined in the jail. The supreme court disagreed, extending the duty of the county to pay for a person in the custody of the sheriff who is unable, because the of the defendant’s condition, to take him at once to the jail.
The court of appeals applied Spicer in Annie Penn Memorial Hospital, Inc. v. Caswell County, 72 N.C. App. 197 (1984). In Annie Penn, a sheriff’s deputy shot a man who pointed a shotgun at him. The deputy handcuffed the man and took him directly to the hospital for emergency medical treatment. As in Spicer, the hospital sued the county for the costs of the defendant’s care. The county argued that the defendant was not in custody when the care was provided. The court of appeals disagreed, noting that deputies escorted the man into the emergency room, and then asked hospital staff to notify them when the man was ready to be discharged so they could pick him up. The man was therefore in county custody, and the county was obligated under Spicer to pay for the man’s care even though he never actually entered the jail.
Contrast Spicer and Annie Penn with Craven County Hospital Corp. v. Lenoir County, 75 N.C. App. 453 (1985). In Craven County Hospital, a habitual inebriate was picked up by city policy officers under authority of the public intoxication law (then in Chapter 122, now in G.S. 122C-303). They planned to take him to the jail to sober up, but as they helped him from the car he fell and was knocked unconscious. He underwent neurosurgery and eventually died 10 days later. The hospital sued the city, the county, and the sheriff for the costs of the man’s care. The court of appeals determined that the county and the sheriff were not liable because the man never actually came into the custody of any county officer. The court likewise concluded that the city was not liable for the costs of the man’s care—not because the man was not in the custody of the transporting officers, but rather because the General Statutes impose no duty upon cities to pay for medical services provided to persons in police custody. The court recognized the “apparent gap” in the law with respect to a “detainee in medical treatment who happens to be in the custody of city police officers rather than a sheriff or his deputy,” but concluded that “the gap must be filled, if at all, by the General Assembly.”
Some jails do a medical screen of arrestees when they arrive at the jail, before they process before a magistrate. If certain medical issues are identified (serious injury, high BAC, etc.), the jail staff ask the arresting officer to take the person to receive medical attention. Assuming any resultant delay in a person’s initial appearance is not unnecessary in light of the person’s condition, that practice seems a sensible way to get a person the care he or she may need. Ultimately, however, considering the cases discussed above, it appears that the county is still on the hook for the costs of care if the arresting officer was a sheriff’s deputy, but not liable if a municipal officer made the arrest.
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.