April 25, 2012 Top Story

Prison Is Not a Custodial Environment for Miranda Purposes

Supreme Court upholds interrogation about other crimes in "normal" prison environment

Swati S. Desai

The Supreme Court recently rejected the bright-line test articulated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which ruled an interrogation custodial whenever an inmate is removed from the general prison population and questioned about events unrelated to his or her incarceration. Justice Alito, writing for the 6–3 majority, stated “Not only does the categorical rule applied below go well beyond anything that is clearly established in our prior decisions, it is simply wrong. The three elements of that rule—(1) imprisonment, (2) questioning in private, and (3) questioning about events in the outside world—are not necessarily enough to create a custodial situation for Miranda purposes.” Howes v. Fields. Instead, a court must examine the objective circumstances of the interrogation to determine if they present a serious danger of coercion such that a reasonable person would have felt he or she could not terminate the interview.

The Facts of Fields

While serving a 45-day sentence for disorderly conduct, Randall Fields was escorted from his cell one evening by two armed sheriff’s deputies. The deputies neither told Fields where he was being taken, nor for what purpose. They took Fields to a conference room and questioned him for six hours, until 2:00 a.m. He was not given a Miranda warning, though deputies repeatedly told him he could return to his cell. Fields demanded several times that the interrogation cease, but neither party asked to leave nor to speak with counsel. Before he went back to his cell, Fields confessed to a sexual relationship with a minor, for which he was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of 10 to 15 years.

The trial court denied Fields’ motion to suppress his confession, and the Michigan Court of Appeals [pdf] affirmed. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan [pdf] granted habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Under United States v. Mathis, the Sixth Circuit held that Fields’ isolation from the general prison population combined with his being questioned about conduct outside the prison constituted per secustodial interrogation. Absent a Miranda warning, Fields’ confession was subject to suppression under the Fifth Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision. The Court majority noted that inmates, who are already confined, do not feel the “shock that very often accompanies arrest.” This abrupt change can lead to a feeling of coercion for non-incarcerated persons, whereas prisoners are already accustomed to restrictions on their movement. Because Fields was told he could return to his cell if he chose, he was not physically restrained or threatened, and he was questioned in “comfortable” surroundings, the Court held that he was not in custody for Miranda purposes.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Ginsburg found the conditions of the interview sufficiently “police-dominated” that Fields’ questioning was not voluntary. To tell an inmate he or she is “free to terminate this interrogation and return to [his or her] cell” does not substitute for a true Miranda warning, reasoned the minority opinion.

Assessing Coercion During Confinement

Practitioners question the Court’s assessment of Fields’ “freedom” of movement. “A normal prison environment is not all just chaos,” explains Stacey F. Gottlieb, Phoenix, cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Criminal Litigation Committee. “There are times to eat, times to go to the yard, and times where the prisoner has free time. Excepting emergency situations or security situations, there are regimented times when prisoners have an expectation of what they are allowed to do and not allowed to do.” Fields’ questioning presented a departure from his normal routine.

“The Court did not start its inquiry at the beginning, when Fields was in his cell,” points out Gottlieb. “The decision starts at the point where Fields is already in the conference room. The Court does not discuss whether Fields was free to refuse when the escort came to get him. That is the typical bench test under Miranda to determine if you are being held against your will—are you free to leave?”

Open Issues after Fields

“If you are going to zero in on the interrogation that took place and the likeness and familiarity of the surroundings,” asks Kenneth C. Pickering, Worcester, MA, cochair of the Section’s Criminal Litigation Committee, “at what point does a prisoner become accustomed to his surroundings whereby questioning him with armed deputies in another room becomes natural and not alarming to him, like being questioned in a police precinct would for someone who is out in the community?”

In the absence of a bright-line rule, it may be difficult for courts to assess when an interrogation is custodial under a variety of circumstances. “Is it after a few hours? After a few days in custody? That’s going to be a real question, which the Supreme Court is going to have to answer after Fields,” says Pickering.

Litigators wonder whether Fields applies to inmates who have not yet been convicted of a crime. “What about people who are in custody but have not yet been tried? Or people who have just had their initial appearance before a judge? Or people picked up off the street and put in a county jail for 24-72 hours before they get to see a judge? They have not been through the system yet. They do not necessarily know that the people they are talking to do not have the ability or authority to impact their cases,” says Gottlieb, questioning whether Fields extends to these circumstances.

Pickering also inquires if Fields applies to those not in custody. “If you had someone who had been questioned by police half a dozen times and the custodial interrogation was not alarming to them, do they have to be given Miranda even though they are out in the community? What if Fields was let out of jail but questioned a day later. Would having served 45 days in jail immunize him from questioning by police in a police precinct?”

Further, the Court’s holding in Fields could have an impact on questioning done in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Preemptive detainees do not need to be informed of their Miranda rights for their voluntary confessions to be admissible in military commission. A number of these cases are being transferred to federal civilian courts, and the admissibility of these confessions is at issue. “Is all custody the same for purposes of this rule?” asks Geoffrey S. Corn, formerly with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s office for 22 years. “I would argue that a detainee in Guantanamo is never in a normal environment because of the nature of the restriction of liberty. I am sure others would say that after a year or two, it becomes home.”

By focusing on the specific circumstances of an interrogation, and eschewing a categorical rule, Fields raises more questions than it answers, say practitioners. The Court will have to return to this issue to clarify its reasoning in Fields.

Swati S. Desai is an associate editor for Litigation News.

Keywords: Sixth Circuit, Howes v. FieldsMiranda warning, bright-line rule, interrogation

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