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Prison Custody is not Miranda Custody

Friday, January 1, 2016

By Larry E. Holtz, Esq.

Source: Holtz Learning Centers

In Howes v. Fields, 132 S.Ct. 1181 (2012), the Court rejected the idea that a prison inmate is always “in custody” within the meaning of Miranda whenever he is taken aside and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison walls.

THE CASE: The prisoner, Randall Fields, while serving a sentence in Michigan, was escorted by a corrections officer to a conference room where two sheriff’s deputies questioned him about allegations that, before he came to prison, he had engaged in sexual conduct with a 12-year-old boy. Fields arrived at the conference room between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and was questioned for over five hours.

“At the beginning of the interview, Fields was told that he was free to leave and return to his cell. Later, he was again told that he could leave whenever he wanted.” During the interview, Fields remained free of handcuffs and other restraints; in addition, the door to the conference room was sometimes open and sometimes shut.

“About halfway through the interview, after Fields had been confronted with the allegations of abuse, he became agitated and began to yell. Fields testified that one of the deputies, using an expletive, told him to sit down and said that ‘if he didn’t want to cooperate, he could leave.’ Fields eventually confessed to engaging in sex acts with the boy.”

THE LAW: Ruling that Fields was not in Miranda custody, the Court emphasized that the questioning of a prisoner is not always custodial “when the prisoner is removed from the general prison population and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison.” On the contrary, the Court has repeatedly declined to adopt any such categorical rule. For example, in Maryland v. Shatzer, 130 S.Ct. 1213 (2010), the Court determined that an inmate’s return to the general prison population after an actual custodial interrogation constituted a break in “Miranda custody.” Clearly, if “a break in custody can occur while a prisoner is serving an uninterrupted term of imprisonment, it must follow that imprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda.”

“There are at least three strong grounds for this conclusion. First, questioning a person who is already serving a prison term does not generally involve the shock that very often accompanies arrest. In the [typical] Miranda situation—a person is arrested in his home or on the street and whisked to a police station for questioning—detention represents a sharp and ominous change, and the shock may give rise to coercive pressures. A person who is ‘cut off from his normal life and companions,’ and abruptly transported from the street into a ‘police-dominated atmosphere,’ may feel coerced into answering questions.”

“By contrast, when a person who is already serving a term of imprisonment is questioned, there is usually no such change. ‘Interrogated suspects who have previously been convicted of crime live in prison.’ [Here], the ordinary restrictions of prison life, while no doubt unpleasant, are expected and familiar and thus do not involve the same ‘inherently compelling pressures’ that are often present when a suspect is yanked from familiar surroundings in the outside world and subjected to interrogation in a police station.”

“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.” When a prisoner is questioned, he knows that when the questioning ceases, he will remain under confinement. Finally, “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.”

“Thus, service of a term of imprisonment, without more, is not enough to constitute Miranda custody.”

Moreover, taking a prisoner aside for questioning—as opposed to questioning the prisoner in the presence of fellow inmates—“does not necessarily convert a noncustodial situation to one in which Miranda applies. When a person who is not serving a prison term is questioned, isolation may contribute to a coercive atmosphere by preventing family members, friends, and others who may be sympathetic from providing either advice or emotional support.”

“By contrast, questioning a prisoner in private does not generally remove the prisoner from a supportive atmosphere. Fellow inmates are by no means necessarily friends. On the contrary, they may be hostile and, for a variety of reasons, may react negatively to what the questioning reveals.” Indeed, isolation from the general prison population “is often in the best interest of the interviewee.”

“It is true that taking a prisoner aside for questioning may necessitate some additional limitations on his freedom of movement. A prisoner may, for example, be removed from an exercise yard and taken, under close guard, to the room where the interview is to be held. But such procedures are an ordinary and familiar attribute of life behind bars. Escorts and special security precautions may be standard procedures regardless of the purpose for which an inmate is removed from his regular routine and taken to a special location.”

Accordingly, when a prisoner is questioned, “the determination of custody should focus on all of the features of the interrogation. These include the language that is used in summoning the prisoner to the interview and the manner in which the interrogation is conducted. * * * An inmate who is removed from the general prison population for questioning and is thereafter subjected to treatment in connection with the interrogation that renders him ‘in custody’ for practical purposes” will be entitled to all the protections set forth in Miranda. On the other hand, “confessions voluntarily made by prisoners in other situations should not be suppressed.”

In this case, Fields was “not taken into custody for purposes of Miranda. To be sure, [he] did not invite the interview or consent to it in advance, and he was not advised that he was free to decline to speak with the deputies.” Nonetheless, 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.” Fields was not physically restrained or threatened and was interviewed in a “well-lit, average-sized conference room, where he was ‘not uncomfortable.’ He was offered food and water, and the door to the conference room was sometimes left open. ‘All of these objective facts are consistent with an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave.’ ” As Fields testified, “I was told, if I didn’t want to cooperate, I could leave” and “go back to my cell.” Said the Court: “Returning to his cell would merely have returned him to his usual environment.”

In sum, taking into account all of the circumstances of the questioning—including especially the undisputed fact that Fields was told that he was free to end the questioning and to return to his cell—the Court held that Fields was not in custody within the meaning of Miranda.


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