©2012 Jack Ryan, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)

In Howes v. Fields, the United States Supreme Court examined a case where a federal trial court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit concluded that a convicted prisoner, while in prison and moved from the general population to an interview room, was “in custody” for Miranda purposes.[i] The United States Supreme Court reversed the lower courts holding that there is no per se rule that a person who is in prison is automatically in custody for purposes of requiring Miranda warnings before questioning on a crime unrelated to their incarceration.

While serving a sentence in a Michigan jail, Randall Fields 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. In order to get to the conference room, Fields had to go down one floor and pass through a locked door that separated two sections of the facility. Fields arrived at the conference room between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and was questioned for between five and seven hours.

Fields was never given Miranda warnings and during the course of the questioning, Fields made admissions.  He was subsequently charged and convicted.  The admissions he made during the questioning were allowed at his trial.  He argued that the admissions should not have been allowed because he was “in custody” and therefore should have been given Miranda warnings.  When the Michigan courts concluded that he was not in custody for Miranda purposes and upheld his conviction, Fields turned to the federal courts for post-conviction relief.  The federal district court agreed with Fields as did the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.  Those courts determined that Fields was in custody and therefore should have been given Miranda warnings.  The state appealed the Court of Appeals decision to the United States Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court concluded that a person who is in prison following a conviction is not necessarily in custody for Miranda purposes.   The Court outlined some of the factors surrounding the questioning of Fields as follows:

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. The two interviewing deputies were armed during the interview, but Fields remained free of handcuffs and other restraints. 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. According to Fields’ testimony at a suppression hearing, he said several times during the interview that he no longer wanted to talk to the deputies, but he did not ask to go back to his cell prior to the end of the interview.

When he was eventually ready to leave, he had to wait an additional 20 minutes or so because a corrections officer had to be summoned to escort him back to his cell, and he did not return to his cell until well after the hour when he generally retired.  At no time was Fields given Miranda warnings or advised that he did not have to speak with the deputies.  [cites omitted]

In overturning the lower court, the Court asserted:

In this case, it is abundantly clear that our precedents do not clearly establish the categorical rule on which the Court of Appeals relied, i.e., that the questioning of a prisoner is always custodial when the prisoner is removed from the general prison population and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison. On the contrary, we have repeatedly declined to adopt any categorical rule with respect to whether the questioning of a prison inmate is custodial…

Most recently, in Maryland v. Shatzer, we expressly declined to adopt a bright-line rule for determining the applicability of Miranda in prisons. Shatzer considered whether a break in custody ends the presumption of involuntariness established in Edwards v. Arizona, and, if so, whether a prisoner’s return to the general prison population after a custodial interrogation constitutes a break in Miranda custody. In considering the latter question, we noted first that “[w]e have never decided whether incarceration constitutes custody for Miranda purposes, and have indeed explicitly declined to address the issue.” The answer to this question, we noted, would “depen[d] upon whether [incarceration] exerts the coercive pressure that Miranda was designed to guard against–the `danger of coercion [that] results from the interaction of custody and official interrogation… In sum, our decisions do not clearly establish that a prisoner is always in custody for purposes of Miranda whenever a prisoner is isolated from the general prison population and questioned about conduct outside the prison.  [cites omitted]

The Court clearly rejected the argument that prisoner is automatically entitled to Miranda warnings because they are in custody in the technical sense.  Instead, the analysis is whether they are in the coercive environment that the Mirandawarnings are intended to overcome.  To make this determination one must consider the facts surrounding the questioning itself and determine whether it is the coercive environment that makes Miranda warnings necessary.

The Court provided an in-depth analysis of how one determines custody for Miranda purposes which should be reviewed by any law enforcement officer who may interview a suspect.  The court wrote:

As used in our Miranda case law, “custody” is a term of art that specifies circumstances that are thought generally to present a serious danger of coercion. In determining whether a person is in custody in this sense, the initial step is to ascertain whether, in light of “the objective circumstances of the interrogation,”  a “reasonable person [would] have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.”  And in order to determine how a suspect would have “gauge[d]” his “freedom of movement,” courts must examine “all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation.” Relevant factors include the location of the questioning, statements made during the interview, the presence or absence of physical restraints during the questioning, and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning…

Determining whether an individual’s freedom of movement was curtailed, however, is simply the first step in the analysis, not the last. Not all restraints on freedom of movement amount to custody for purposes of Miranda.  We have “decline[d] to accord talismanic power” to the freedom-of-movement inquiry, and have instead asked the additional question whether the relevant environment presents the same inherently coercive pressures as the type of station house questioning at issue in Miranda. “Our cases make clear . . . that the freedom-of-movement test identifies only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for Miranda custody… This important point is illustrated by our decision in Berkemer v. McCarty, In that case, we held that the roadside questioning of a motorist who was pulled over in a routine traffic stop did not constitute custodial interrogation. We acknowledged that “a traffic stop significantly curtails the `freedom of action’ of the driver and the passengers,” and that it is generally “a crime either to ignore a policeman’s signal to stop one’s car or, once having stopped, to drive away without permission…. “[F]ew motorists,” we noted, “would feel free either to disobey a directive to pull over or to leave the scene of a traffic stop without being told they might do so. Nevertheless, we held that a person detained as a result of a traffic stop is not in Miranda custody because such detention does not “sufficiently impair [the detained person’s] free exercise of his privilege against self-incrimination to require that he be warned of his constitutional rights.” As we later put it, the “temporary and relatively nonthreatening detention involved in a traffic stop or Terry stop does not constitute Miranda custody,”

The Court made clear that “imprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda.”  The Court reasoned:

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 paradigmatic 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…. For a person serving a term of incarceration, we reasoned in Shatzer, 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 person is arrested and taken to a station house for interrogation, the person who is questioned may be pressured to speak by the hope that, after doing so, he will be allowed to leave and go home. On the other hand, when a prisoner is questioned, he knows that when the questioning ceases, he will remain under confinement…

Third, 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. And “where the possibility of parole exists,” the interrogating officers probably also lack the power to bring about an early release. Ibid. “When the suspect has no reason to think that the listeners have official power over him, it should not be assumed that his words are motivated by the reaction he expects from his listeners.” Under such circumstances, there is little “basis for the assumption that a suspect . . . will feel compelled to speak by the fear of reprisal for remaining silent or in the hope of [a] more lenient treatment should he confess.”

In short, standard conditions of confinement and associated restrictions on freedom will not necessarily implicate the same interests that the Court sought to protect when it afforded special safeguards to persons subjected to custodial interrogation. Thus, service of a term of imprisonment, without more, is not enough to constitute Miranda custody. [cites omitted]

The Court also rejected the lower court’s reasoning that taking the prisoner to a private office converted the interview into a custodial situation.  The Court noted:

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 Mirandaapplies 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. And without any such assistance, the person who is questioned may feel overwhelming pressure to speak and to refrain from asking that the interview be terminated.

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. In the present case, for example, would respondent have felt more at ease if he had been questioned in the presence of other inmates about the sexual abuse of an adolescent boy? Isolation from the general prison population is often in the best interest of the interviewee and, in any event, does not suggest on its own the atmosphere of coercion that concerned the Court in Miranda.

In the end the Court concluded that there is no per se rule that a prisoner who is serving a sentence for an unrelated crime is in custody for Miranda purposes when investigators go to the prison or jail to question the subject.  As such, a prisoner may not be entitled to Miranda warnings.  Instead officers must look to the factors surrounding the interview to determine whether warnings are required.

Part one of determining custody: Custody Factors that the Court outlined in this case:

  • The location of the questioning, statements made during the interview, the presence or absence of physical restraints during the questioning, and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning,

Part two of determining custody:

  • Whether the relevant environment presents the same inherently coercive pressures as the type of station house questioning at issue in Miranda.

Note: This case makes clear that custody for Miranda purposes is not the same as a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court makes clear that custody is not determined by a freedom of movement test.   Instead officers must look at the above factors and determine whether the environment is coercive to the degree that a reasonable person would not feel they had any choice to end the interrogation and walk away.

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.



[i] Howes v. Fields, Slip Op. No. 10-680, 2012 U.S. LEXIS 1077 (2012).

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