Miranda: When Custody Isn't "Custody"

Of the 55 subsequent Supreme Court opinions on Miranda issues, 14 have involved attempts to clarify the meaning of "custody," and in 12 of those 14, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of state and federal appellate courts, which got it wrong.

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The rationale of Miranda holds that (1) a person confronted with custodial police interrogation is presumed to be so stressed by the experience that he or she will feel compelled to answer questions and make statements; (2) the Fifth Amendment forbids compelled self-incrimination; and therefore (3) statements obtained from custodial interrogation are inadmissible to prove guilt at trial; unless (4) the presumed compulsion has been neutralized by the now-familiar four-part warning.

The Miranda opinion gave lower court judges, lawyers, and police officers what Chief Justice Warren described as "concrete constitutional guidelines" for applying the Miranda rules: the warnings would be required in order to make a statement admissible if police interrogation occurred after the suspect had been "taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom in any significant way." This "concrete" definition of "custody" proved to be more like quicksand.

Of the 55 subsequent Supreme Court opinions on Miranda issues, 14 have involved attempts to clarify the meaning of "custody," and in 12 of those 14, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of state and federal appellate courts, which got it wrong. No wonder the Supreme Court has now admitted that "the task of defining 'custody' is a slippery one." (Oregon v. Elstad)

Three Supreme Court rulings have dealt with the particular problem of deciding whether Miranda applies when officers go to a jail or prison to question an inmate. If the suspect is already incarcerated, isn't he under even greater restraint than when, like Ernesto Miranda, he’s simply handcuffed and taken to the station under arrest? The first encounter with this issue arose in 1968, only two years after Miranda v. Arizona was decided.

Mathis v. U.S.

Robert T. Mathis was an inmate in a Florida prison on state convictions when federal agents went there to question him about tax crimes. They gave no Miranda warnings. Mathis made incriminating statements which were used to obtain his conviction. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mathis claimed that he should have been Mirandized, and the court majority agreed. Repeating the "concrete" definition of "custody" contained in the Miranda decision, the court ruled that Mathis was subjected to custodial interrogation without warnings, and his convictions were reversed.

In dissent, three justices (who had also dissented in Miranda) disagreed with the court's finding of "custody." These justices pointed out that as an inmate accustomed to the prison environment, Mathis was in familiar surroundings when he was questioned, which should have dispelled the presumption of compulsion that arises when a person at-large is arrested by the police and taken in for questioning.

The rationale advanced by the Mathis dissenters was subsequently adopted by some lower courts to distinguish inmate interrogation from arrestee interrogation. (U.S. v. Willoughby—2nd Circuit; U.S. v. Cooper—4th Circuit; U.S. v. Menzer—7th Circuit; U.S. v. Ingle—8th Circuit; U.S. v. Turner—9th Circuit; U.S. v. Grimes—11th Circuit) It was not until 2010 that the Supreme Court next considered the issue of inmate "custody."[PAGEBREAK]Maryland v. Shatzer

Michael B. Shatzer was serving his sentence in a Maryland correctional facility when police tried to question him about an unsolved crime. The investigating officer Mirandized Shatzer, who invoked his right to counsel. Questioning stopped, and Shatzer was returned to the general population. The investigation was dropped.

Two years and six months later, a different investigator re-opened the case and went back to the prison to talk to Shatzer. Questioning took place in a maintenance room. Shatzer was again Mirandized, and this time he waived and confessed. Convicted on the new charges, Shatzer appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which reversed the convictions. This court focused on the fact that two and one-half years before confessing, Shatzer had invoked his right to counsel, which made him "question-proof" as long as he remained in custody. The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then reversed the Maryland court's ruling.

The Supreme Court first created an arbitrary time limit as to how long an invocation of counsel would be effective against subsequent interrogation once the suspect has been released from custody (14 days). The court next ruled that returning an inmate to the general population constitutes a "break in custody," because (echoing the Mathis dissent) he has been put back into his familiar surroundings. Since Shatzer had been released from custody long enough to dissolve his prior invocation of counsel, his subsequent waiver was valid and his statement admissible.

The court noted that the prosecution had not raised an issue as to whether or not Shatzer's questioning had been custodial, saying "No one questions that Shatzer was in custody during the interviews." And in a footnote, the court said that "When a prisoner is removed from the general population and taken to a separate location for questioning," his circumstances have changed to "interrogative custody." These comments were seized upon by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to support its decision in the latest inmate case reviewed by the Supreme Court, in 2012.

Howes v. Fields

Randall Lee Fields was an inmate in a Michigan prison when investigators arrived to question him about another crime. Fields was taken to a conference room where sheriff's deputies told him that he was free to leave and return to his cell whenever he wanted. He was not handcuffed or shackled. He was offered food and water during the several hours of unMirandized interrogation, during which he confessed.

State courts ruled that Miranda did not apply to the interrogation; however, both the federal district court and the Sixth Circuit ordered Fields released or retried, based on Miranda error. Relying on those passages from Shatzer quoted above, the Sixth Circuit said that Fields was in custody and should have been Mirandized. On further appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

The court declared that "Mathis did not hold that imprisonment, in and of itself, is enough to constitute Miranda custody." As to the passages in Shatzer relied on by the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court said these statements meant only that "the issue of custody was not contested." The court majority then basically adopted the reasoning of the Mathis dissent, focusing on the familiarity of prison surroundings for an inmate and deciding that prisoners are not necessarily in custody. The court said this:

"Imprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda. Taking a prisoner aside for questioning does not necessarily convert a noncustodial situation to one in which Miranda applies. Taking into account all of the circumstances of the questioning—especially the fact that respondent was told that he was free to end the questioning and return to his cell—we hold that respondent was not in custody within the meaning of Miranda."

This decision means that officers who want to interrogate an inmate may remove the inmate to an interview room, avoid the use of added restraints, advise him that he is free to end the interview and return to his cell at any time, and take an admissible statement without Miranda warnings. The Supreme Court was able to arrive at this concrete guideline for inmate interrogation in only 46 years.

Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as special counsel to the Los Angeles County district attorney. He is the author of several books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."

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