Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Posted in: Constitutional Law

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Howes v. Fields, an important case about the rights of prisoners who undergo police interrogation while they are incarcerated.  The Court ruled that prior to conducting a five-to-seven-hour interrogation of Randall Fields—a state prisoner serving a sentence for disorderly conduct—the interrogating officers were under no obligation to give Fields the Miranda warnings (that is, the familiar trope that begins “You have the right to remain silent . . .”).  A majority of the Justices reasoned that despite being in jail, Fields was not entitled to Miranda warnings because he was not in official “custody” for purposes of Miranda v. Arizona, the case in which the Court first announced that police must warn suspects of their rights before conducting custodial interrogation.

Though the Court cites various precedents in support of its holding, the decision in fact represents a marked departure from earlier case law, as well as from the philosophy that animated the Miranda decision and its progeny.  In this two-part series of columns, the second of which will appear here on Justia’s Verdict on March 28, I will explain the nature of that departure.

The Objectives of Miranda

In 1966, when it decided Miranda, the Supreme Court had been wrestling with an important question for some time:  How could courts accurately and consistently determine whether or not a custodial confession had resulted from compulsion and was therefore subject to exclusion from evidence under the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination?  To this end, the Court had long been employing a “voluntariness” test, under which it would try to figure out whether police had used promises or threats to undermine the free will of a suspect, causing him to provide self-incriminating statements that he would not willingly have given.  The test was factually and normatively messy, and it frequently resulted in unpredictable and arbitrary, case-by-case determinations.

Rather than continue to engage in complex and indeterminate analyses of “voluntariness,” the Court in Miranda decided to standardize the interrogation of people in custody.  The Justices observed that a suspect in official custody would experience a level of compulsion that is absent from ordinary exchanges between police and civilians.  This compulsion, in turn, would reduce a person’s ability to exercise her will to resist questioning, even in the absence of overt threats and/or explicit promises.  As a result of these observations, the Court decided that there ought to be a presumption of compulsion that accompanies any statement given in response to custodial interrogation.

To rebut that presumption, a majority ruled, the government would have to show that police first gave the suspect the now-famous Miranda warnings or their functional equivalent, thereby letting the suspect know that: (a) she has the right to remain silent; (b) if she gives up the right to remain silent, anything she says may be used against her in court; (c) she has the right to an attorney; and (d) if she cannot afford to pay an attorney, she has the right to government-appointed counsel.  Having heard these warnings, a suspect could waive her rights and answer police questions, if she wanted to, but if she invoked her rights instead, police would have to honor that invocation.

The primary goals of Miranda were twofold:  (1) to empower suspects to resist police interrogation in a highly coercive environment, such that any statements they give might be honestly characterized as voluntary; and (2) to enable courts to utilize a simple formula that would allow them more easily to rule on the admissibility of a defendant’s statements, rather than having to engage in an indeterminate analysis of the statements’ “voluntariness.”  The new analysis would ordinarily entail two straightforward questions:  Did the police give the warnings?  And if so, did the suspect waive her rights?

Limits on the Scope of Miranda:  The Precedents

From its inception, Miranda required warnings in only a limited subset of cases, those in which law enforcement officers interrogated a suspect who was in custody.  Absent custody, police could pose questions to anyone, including suspects, without ceremony and without warnings, and the responses to those questions would raise no Fifth Amendment issues unless the defendant could show that he had been under actual compulsion.

Because of Miranda’s limited scope, the Court has supplied definitions for the operative words, “custody” and “interrogation.”  Interrogation occurs when police ask questions (such as “Where were you at 7 p.m. yesterday?”) or when they make statements or act in ways that are “reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response” from the suspect—what the Court considers the functional equivalent of questioning.  Questioning a suspect about a crime for at least five hours, as the police did in Fields, the case that the Court just decided, certainly qualifies as Miranda interrogation.  The controversial issue in Fields was therefore whether the suspect, Randall Fields, was in “custody” at the time of his interrogation.

Under existing case law, when police place a suspect under arrest, that suspect is in custody and is accordingly entitled to warnings prior to any interrogation that might yield admissible statements.  Beyond this situation, however, the answer to the question whether a suspect is in custody is not always clear.  The Supreme Court has thus, on numerous occasions, had to rule on whether a given set of circumstances in which a suspect responded to official interrogation qualified as “custodial” under Miranda.

Berkemer v. McCarty: Is a Routine Traffic Stop Custodial?

In Berkemer v. McCarty, the Court faced the question whether “the roadside questioning of a motorist detained pursuant to a routine traffic stop should be considered ‘custodial interrogation.’”  In Miranda, the Court had said that “[b]y custodial interrogation, we mean questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.”

When police briefly pull over a driver for violating the traffic law, the driver has not literally been taken into custody, but police have arguably limited his freedom of action in a “significant way.”  For Fourth Amendment purposes, for example, he has been “seized,” and police therefore violate his right against unreasonable seizures if they lack reasonable suspicion or some other justification for the stop.

In considering the Miranda custody question, the Court asked “whether a traffic stop exerts upon a detained person pressures that sufficiently impair his free exercise of his privilege against self-incrimination to require that he be warned of his constitutional rights.”

Noting that traffic stops typically last a short time and occur in public, where suspects are less likely to fear abuse if they refuse to answer questions, a majority of the Supreme Court determined that the Miranda safeguards would not apply in such situations, despite acknowledging that “a traffic stop significantly curtails the ‘freedom of action’ of the driver and the passengers, if any, of the detained vehicle.”  The phrase used in the Miranda definition of custody would thus be subject to a flexible interpretation, and would “apply only in those types of situations in which the concerns that powered the decision are implicated.”

In its majority opinion in Fields, the Court cites McCarty for the flexibility that the traffic stop precedent affords to courts construing the meaning of Miranda custody.  While looking to McCarty for lessons in flexibility, however, the Court might have recalled the caveat the McCarty majority included in its ruling:  “It is settled that the safeguards prescribed by Miranda become applicable as soon as a suspect’s freedom of action is curtailed to a ‘degree associated with formal arrest.’”  It was therefore the relative freedom retained by the motorist in McCarty—by comparison to that of a person placed under arrest—that accounted for the decision to dispense with the safeguards reserved for custodial interrogation.  On this standard, people in jail and prison would seem far more like arrested people than like drivers pulled over to the side of the road for speeding.

Illinois v. Perkins:  Can Police Avoid the Obligation to Give Miranda Warnings Through a Jailhouse Ruse?

Another old precedent in which the Court approved of interrogation in the absence of warnings is Illinois v. Perkins.  In one respect, this case resembles Fields much more than McCarty does.  The suspect in question, Lloyd Perkins, was in jail at the time that he was questioned, on charges unrelated to the matter on which he was to be interrogated.  The police placed an undercover officer pretending to be an inmate in Perkins’s cellblock, along with another actual prisoner, who was acting as an informant.

The informant and undercover officer pretended that they were planning to escape from jail and were considering including Perkins in their plot, if he could only prove to them that he was willing to commit murder in the event that it became necessary.  Hoping to be admitted into the escape conspiracy, Perkins described his commission of an unsolved murder.  In response to questions posed by his would-be escape partners, Perkins went on to reveal precise details about that murder that helped to establish his guilt.

When Perkins appealed his conviction for the murder that he had confessed, he relied on Miranda, in what his attorneys might have anticipated would be a winning argument:  he was never given the warnings, and he was asked questions by a law enforcement officer, the very definition of interrogation, while being held in jail, the essence of custody.  Perkins lost his appeal, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that a voluntary conversation that a suspect has with someone he believes to be another inmate does not implicate the pressures involved in the kind of official interrogation that Miranda protections were designed to address.  It probably did not help Perkins’s case that the “promise” and “threat” at issue were, respectively, a promise of inclusion in, and the threat of exclusion from, a conspiracy to escape from the jail, an unlawful plot.

There are strong arguments against the Court’s ruling in Perkins, including the dissent’s astute observation that when answering the questions of fellow inmates, prisoners may indeed feel pressure to reveal and even invent prior criminal activity in order to come across as tough and thereby avoid becoming a victim in a violence-saturated environment.  Yet, it is clear that to require Miranda warnings in the Perkins setting would chime the death knell of undercover operations in jails and prisons.  Furthermore, the distinction between interrogations by uniformed officers and questions posed by people who appear to be fellow inmates does have some force.

Nonetheless, and perhaps most importantly for our purposes, the Court did not deny that the jailed suspect who was questioned in Perkins was in custody at the time.  A footnote specified, in fact, that “respondent was in custody on an unrelated charge when he was questioned,” observing that Perkins may therefore have had recourse to earlier invocations of Miranda rights, had he made them.

Part Two in this two-part series of columns, which will appear here on Justia’s Verdict on Wednesday, March 28, will complete the analysis of precedents bearing on Fields, and then analyze Fields itself. 

5 responses to “Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

  1. Think you have Miranda Rights? Think again | Soapbox says:

    […] Rights even in cases where you’ve said you want a lawyer. The courts for years have been paring back Miranda Rights because law enforcement thinks it unfairly restricts them from doing their jobs. But hey, if it was […]

  2. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t it the purview of the Congress to “make new law?”  In article 1, sec 8,  the last paragraph “To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution of the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution…”   I thought the supreme Court is the  interpreter of the Constitution  and is to rule accordingly, not legislate from the bench.

    • Nels Ekelund says:

      You are correct.  However, that is what the courts were trying to do in respect of the fifth amendment, which is a very brief but significant piece of constitutional law.  The court, especially the Supreme Court, has the responsibility not only to interpret the law, but to do so in a way that will guide lower courts in their analysis, often by the development of tests or lists of factors to be considered.

  3. Thegloryjournalpages says:

    Poppycock.  He should have been told that he had the right to be silent.  Then OAN was he tortured and beat to talk?

  4. Thegloryjournalpages says:

    Poppycock.  He should have been told that he had the right to be silent.  Then OAN was he tortured and beat to talk?