Saturday, March 3, 2012

Miranda: Custody within Custody?

Is this man in custody?
When the police have a suspect “in custody” and they want to interrogate him, they must first read him his Miranda rights, which still include (arguably) the right to remain silent.  And the test for whether a suspect is “in custody” has produced some very interesting cases.  For example, assume that the police are questioning a suspect at his home, but while pointing their guns at him; is the suspect “in custody”?  Or what if the police use the old bait-and-switch and “invite” a suspect to come to the police station under false pretenses, and then start interrogating him once he gets there; is the suspect “in custody” in that situation?  You might be able to formulate good arguments on both sides of these coins.  But, when a suspect has been formally imprisoned and put in a jail cell, and the police go to question him, surely that prisoner is “in custody” and entitled to the Miranda warning, right?  Not so fast.  The Supreme Court says that we have to look at whether there was "custody within custody."

Just in time for March Madness, the Supremes (with three dissenters, to their credit), decided Howes v. Fields, and held that a prisoner is not “in custody” unless he is in “custody within custody.”  In Fields, the defendant was taken from his prison cell and interrogated by armed deputies.  He was not read his Miranda rights.  He told the deputies at least twice that he did not want to speak to them.  He was held until the early morning hours during a seven hour interrogation.  (Interestingly, he was not given his evening dose of two anti-rejection medications that were prescribed post-kidney transplant.)  He also said that he did not feel free to get up and simply walk out under the circumstances of the interrogation.    

So why did the Supreme Court decide that he was not in custody and therefore not entitled to Miranda warnings?  Because the deputies told him that he was free to stop the interrogation and return to his cell at any time.

This reminds me of when the police say “I’m not putting words in your mouth, but what I think you did is [insert details of 'confession' here].”  When the police have to say “I’m not putting words in your mouth,” it’s a safe bet that they are, in fact, putting words in your mouth. 

And in the Fields case, when the police say you can stop the interrogation and go back to your cell at any time, but then don’t take you back to your cell when you tell them you're done talking, guess what?  You’re really not free to go back to your cell.  So not only did the Supreme Court have to dream up this new standard—"custody within custody"—they even failed to apply it properly. 

March Madness, indeed.

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