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

Posted in: Constitutional Law

Part One in this two-part series of columns appeared here, on Justia’s Verdict. –Ed.

In Part One of this series of columns, I analyzed a number of the Supreme Court’s precedents that might be read as lending support to its recent ruling in Howes v. Fields.  Of all the various decisions that the Supreme Court cites in defense of the outcome in Fields, however, the most plainly relevant is Maryland v. Shatzer—which I shall now discuss.

In Shatzer, as I analyzed in greater detail in a column published here, the suspect was serving a prison term at the time of his interrogation.  Prior to the interrogation, he received Miranda warnings and gave a written waiver of his rights.  The problem was that at an interrogation that took place over two years earlier, he had invoked his right to counsel, an invocation that promptly ended the questioning.

Under prior case law beginning with Edwards v. Arizona and including Arizona v. Roberson and Minnick v. Mississippi, police may not initiate further interrogation once a suspect has invoked her right to counsel, even if the second interrogation takes place at a later time, concerns a different crime, involves a different law enforcement authority, and/or occurs after the suspect has already had the opportunity to meet with her attorney.  Once a suspect in custody demands a lawyer, interrogation must stop and not resume until the suspect has counsel present during questioning, unless, that is, she herself initiates her own interrogation in the absence of counsel.

In Shatzer, the suspect had invoked his right to counsel over two years prior to the interrogation at issue, but he had remained incarcerated in the interim.  The Court therefore had to decide, first, whether a “break in custody” between the invocation of counsel and the renewed interrogation by law enforcement officials would affect the Edwards prohibition on further attempts to interrogate.  And second, the Court had to decide, assuming that a break in custody between interrogations would matter, whether such a break could be said to have occurred if the suspect was continuously incarcerated from one interrogation to the next.  Stated differently, the Court had to answer this question:  Is it valid to characterize a period of time that a prisoner spends behind bars as a “break in custody” for Miranda purposes ?

A near-unanimous Supreme Court held in Shatzer that (a) a break in custody of fourteen days or more could purge the earlier invocation of counsel; and that (b) a person can be incarcerated but still, at the same time, experience a break in custody for Miranda purposes.

In Shatzer, then, the Supreme Court announced for the first time that incarceration in a jail or prison did not necessarily amount to Miranda custody.  The Court reached this conclusion by effectively narrowing the definition of custody to require what the majority called “investigative custody.”  The Justices acknowledged in Shatzer that “[t]o determine whether a suspect was in Miranda custody we have asked whether ‘there is a “formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement” of the degree associated with a formal arrest.’”  A majority nonetheless maintained that the “formal arrest”-or-its-equivalent standard represented only a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of Miranda custody.  Put another way, without such a restraint, there is no Miranda custody, but with the restraint, there may or may not be.

The Shatzer Court then stated that “[w]ithout minimizing the harsh realities of incarceration, we think lawful imprisonment imposed upon conviction of a crime does not create the coercive pressures identified in Miranda.”  Implying that for prisoners, the general prison population is akin to home, the majority explained:  “When [prisoners who have been interrogated] are released back into the general prison population, they return to their accustomed surroundings and daily routine—they regain the degree of control they had over their lives prior to the interrogation.”

This ruling constitutes the most significant support available in the case law for the result in Howes v. Fields, because Shatzer itself was such a departure from prior precedents, announcing as it did that one can be in prison without being in Miranda custody.

As in earlier cases cited by the majority in Fields, however, it is important to note the context for this ruling:  During Shatzer’s break in custody, no officer was interrogating or attempting to interrogate him.  The Court was thus deciding whether a suspect’s invocation of his right to counsel could expire if the suspect remained incarcerated but un-interrogated between his invocation of that right at a first interrogation, and the initiation of a later one.  We might therefore describe a suspect as free of investigative custody, if he experienced no investigative interrogation during his post-interrogation incarceration up until the time that he heard a new set of Miranda warnings.

Shatzer was accordingly free of investigative custody for an extended period of time, and the majority opinion relied on this freedom in deciding the case as it did:  “Sentenced prisoners,” the Court said, “in contrast to the Miranda paradigm, are not isolated with their accusers. They live among other inmates, guards, and workers, and often can receive visitors and communicate with people on the outside by mail or telephone.”

Though I regard this description of prison life as grossly incomplete, at best, it does provide a defensible boundary between the experience of day-to-day incarceration, on one hand, and the experience of incarceration that is augmented by investigative interrogation, on the other.  When a prisoner is neither undergoing nor awaiting interrogation—when he does not experience himself as the live target of an ongoing criminal investigation—the Shatzer Court views him as free of custody for purposes of Miranda, such that his invocation of counsel at an earlier interrogation will be allowed to expire, subject to renewal when the suspect hears the Miranda warnings again, as Shatzer did at the start of his second interrogation.

Howes v. Fields: Is an Interrogated Prisoner in Custody for Miranda Purposes?

By contrast to Michael Shatzer, Randall Fields was “isolated with [his] accusers” at the time in question.  He was admittedly interrogated about a suspected crime for five to seven hours, late into the night, by two armed deputies, during which the door to the room was sometimes open, and sometimes closed.  While the interrogation was in progress, Fields said several times that he no longer wanted to talk to the deputies, but their questions nonetheless continued.

Fields was told at the beginning of his interrogation and reminded again later that he could go back to his cell at any time.  It is difficult to imagine, however, that the officers’ failure to heed his requests that the questioning stop gave him much faith in their  promises.  Moreover, a request to return to his cell would have admittedly occasioned a twenty-minute delay, during which the interrogation might have continued, just as it had continued when he had said he no longer wanted to talk.

Unlike Shatzer, Fields was not, at the relevant time, living in the general population among other inmates.  He could not receive visitors, and he could not communicate with people on the outside by mail or telephone.  Yet the Court still held that Fields was not in custody for Miranda purposes and that police could therefore lawfully interrogate him in the absence of warnings.

The Court’s Approach:  Distinguishing Fields from a Fresh Arrestee

The Court’s argument for this result consisted of its assembling facts that it believed distinguished Fields’s experience from that of an arrested person who is interrogated shortly after his arrest:  First, the Court noted, unlike the person who has just been arrested, an incarcerated prisoner (such as Fields) would not be in a new and shocking environment.  Second, the Court contended, while an arrestee might hope to gain quick release or a shorter sentence by speaking, an incarcerated convict could not truly imagine that his responses to official questioning might lead to prompt release or a shorter sentence.  Thus, the Court reasoned, the feeling that answering questions could spell the difference between freedom and confinement would be absent from the mind of an incarcerated convict like Fields.

The Court’s Analysis Underestimates Prison Officials’ Perceived and Actual Power Over Inmates’ Lives

The Court’s argument would be quite jarring to anyone familiar with the workings of a correctional facility.  In the real world of institutional confinement, the incarcerated prisoner understands quite well—indeed, perhaps better than the newly arrested suspect does—that the officials in the prison system have enormous power to determine the extent of his restraint while he remains behind bars.  Such determinations include whether he is subject to penalties (including solitary confinement, a form of “enhanced” custody), whether he is housed with the most violent and dangerous inmates, and whether he gains or loses minor amenities and privileges that come to mean everything to many prisoners while they serve their time.

If the Miranda warnings are intended to reassure a person that the officials who are in apparent control of his destiny will not punish him for his silence, then the warnings are no less necessary within the walls of a jail or prison than they are at a police station.

The Court’s understanding of prison as an unpleasant place where people nonetheless feel relatively safe and certain about their day-to-day lives is so far off the mark that it would be grimly amusing if it did not have such profound implications for the law.  Prisoners in the presence of interrogating officers could be described as comparable to free people voluntarily answering an officer’s questions only by judges exhibiting either a stunning level of ignorance, or a major failure of empathy.  It is difficult to know which of these is more alarming, but neither one reflects well on Justices who currently make up a majority of the highest court in the land.

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

  1. Daron_walter2002 says:

    very intersting