Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Supreme Court: Inmate not in custody for Miranda purposes

In 1966, the Supreme Court in the case of Miranda v. Arizona attempted to create explicit warnings that would remind suspects of their constitutional rights before police interrogation -   specifically, the rights under the 5th and 6th amendments to remain silent and to have an attorney during a criminal proceeding.  These “Miranda rights” are now ubiquitous in popular culture, and anyone who has ever watched any of the myriad of crime/lawyer dramas has heard them recited.  What has not been as clear is exactly when the police are required to recite the warnings.  The uncertainty surrounding Miranda was on display most recently in the Supreme Court case Howes v. Fields.
            The trigger for the Miranda warnings is that there are required before a “custodial interrogation” can begin.  At first glance, it would seem clear that a prisoner in jail is in “custody”.  However, in a 6-3 decision, the Court held in Howes v. Fields, that jailhouse questioning does not automatically require Miranda warnings.  While already serving a jail sentence in a Michigan jail, the defendant in the case was removed from his cell and questioned by two armed sheriff’s deputies about another crime for 5 to 7 hours. The questioning began in the evening at some point between 7:00 and 9:00.  Testimony during the trial claimed that during the questioning he stated he no longer wanted to talk but never explicitly asked to return to his cell.  At no time was he read Miranda warnings. 
            Despite these facts, the Court rejected a categorical rule that requires Miranda warnings be given to a suspect who is currently serving a jail sentence.  Instead, they made clear that a determination of “custody” for Miranda purposes should include an inquiry into all of the circumstances.  In Howes, the majority made much of the fact that the defendant was told multiple times that he could leave and return to his cell whenever he wanted.  They also noted that he was offered food and water and was not restrained during the questioning. 
            The dissenting opinion argued that the inquiry should have focused on the overwhelming nature of the “police-dominated atmosphere”.  In many ways such an approach harkens back to the original Miranda decision where the Court sought to clearly limit overreaching by the police who at times utilized brutal interrogation tactics.  The dissent also is clearly concerned that the holding in the case could be read to limit the requirement of Miranda warnings for suspects in jail. 
This decision will cause further anxiety amongst court observers who already fear that the Court is moving towards a repeal of Miranda.  Whatever your opinion, it certainly is surprising to hear the Supreme Court rule that jail inmates are not in “custody”.

** The full opinion can be read here **

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