The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 24 (2011-12)

The Scope of Miranda Rights in Prison: When is Someone in Custody “In Custody”?
by  Trisha Chokshi

The Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona held that in order to preserve the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, police officers must read criminal suspects their “Miranda warnings” when performing a custodial interrogation.[1] Courts have traditionally determined whether a suspect is in custody for Miranda purposes by assessing whether a reasonable person, given the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, was deprived of his freedom of movement “in any significant way” or felt that he was not free to leave.[2] But what about situations where a person cannot leave, such as an inmate in a prison? When is a person in custody “in custody” for purposes of Miranda? That is the question the Supreme Court is poised to hear this term in the case of Howes v. Fields.

In Howes v. Fields, the Sixth Circuit created a bright line rule when determining the meaning of “custody” in a custodial interrogation: when police officers isolate inmates from the general prison population and interrogate them about conduct occurring outside of the prison that is unrelated to his incarceration, the inmate is “in custody” and a timely reading of the Miranda warnings is required.[3] Initially, as a means to preserve Miranda, the Supreme Court should affirm the Sixth Circuit decision in Fields and adopt a bright line rule requiring police officers to read inmates their Miranda warnings when they remove them from the general population and isolate them for purposes of interrogation regarding a crime that occurred outside prison. This article first seeks to examine the firmly established law in Miranda and Mathis v. United States and provide an overview of how the circuits have defined custody in prison settings. Next, in analyzing the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Fields under relevant law this article will provide rationale for the Supreme Court to adopt a bright line rule.

, Mathis, and the Meaning of Custody.
The Fifth Amendment provides in pertinent part that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”[4] The framers’ intent was for there to be protection against excessive and arbitrary power and to ensure a fair adversarial process.[5] In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that the privilege against self-incrimination had always been “as broad as the mischief against which it seeks to safeguard.” The Fifth Amendment would be meaningless if police officers could simply compel individuals to speak against themselves; therefore, a warning is an “absolute prerequisite” before subjecting suspects to the inherent pressures of a custodial interrogation.[6] In order to safeguard a suspect’s rights, the Miranda Court set forth a system of warnings that police officers must read to a suspects they interrogate in custody.[7]

The Supreme Court considered the issue of reading Miranda warnings to inmates in Mathis v. United States.[8] In Mathis, the inmate was serving a state prison sentence and was questioned by an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent about whether he had prepared a tax return.[9] He was not read his Miranda warnings prior to questioning.[10] Documents and oral statements obtained from the inmate as a result of the interrogation were subsequently introduced at his criminal trial for filing false claims for tax refunds.[11] The government argued that because the officers who interrogated the inmate about the IRS matter were not the officers who initially placed him in custody, there was no link between the custody and interrogation.[12] Therefore, the pressures that Miranda intended to safeguard were not present and a reading of the warnings was not required.[13] The Mathis Court rejected the government’s attempt to narrow the scope of Miranda, stating that a distinction based on why the suspect was incarcerated or who put him in custody was “too minor and shadowy to justify a departure from the well considered conclusions of Miranda with reference to warnings to be given to a person held in custody.”[14] In affirming the broad definition of custody set out in Miranda, the Court in Mathis held that nothing in Miranda calls for the curtailment of the warnings based solely on the fact that one is already in custody.[15]

The Ninth Circuit was the first to consider whether the Court’s decision in Mathis created a bright line rule requiring the reading of Miranda warnings to inmates in prison. In Cervantes v. Walker,[16] Mr. Cervantes, an inmate, was asked to move from one jail cell to another after an altercation with another inmate.[17] Prior to being moved, the corrections officer escorted Cervantes to the jail library so that the shift commander could speak to him.[18] The officer proceeded to conduct a routine search of Cervantes’ jail cell and found a small matchbox containing marijuana.[19] He then went to the library and questioned the inmate who immediately made an incriminating statement.[20]

The Ninth Circuit made the distinction here between on-the-scene questioning and questioning during a traditional custodial interrogation.[21] In doing so, the court held that Mathis was not broad enough to label all questioning in a prison setting as being custodial interrogation for purposes of Miranda. In finding Miranda inapplicable, the court reasoned that the mere fact an inmate is already incarcerated did not automatically make an interrogation custodial, thus interactions such as on-the-scene questioning inside a prison did not require a Miranda reading.[22] Instead, the court employed a four-part “free to leave” totality of the circumstances test to determine whether a reasonable person would believe that there had been “a restriction of his freedom over and above that in his normal prison setting.”[23] Only when there was evidence of these added coercive pressures on an inmate’s freedom of movement, potentially undermining his will or compelling him to speak, could Miranda apply.[24]

Several circuits have taken a similar approach to Cervantes and defined “custody” based on whether the interrogation of inmates occurred “on the scene” or on prison premises.[25] Other courts have extended Cervantes and have applied the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning to cases where an interrogation involved a crime that occurred outside of the prison. For instance, in United States v. Menzer, the Seventh Circuit held that an inmate was not in custody when he appeared to an interview room voluntarily, knew why he was going to be interrogated, and did not have physical restraints placed on him.[26] Menzer similarly stands for the proposition that there needs to be an added imposition on an inmate’s freedom of movement beyond the normal pressures of incarceration in order for Miranda to apply.[27] Meanwhile, other circuits have assessed the issue from the perspective of inmate-initiated conversations.[28] For instance, in the Second Circuit case United States v. Willoughby, an inmate was talking voluntarily with his girlfriend, but was not aware that she agreed to wear a wire.[29] The appellate court relied heavily on the fact that he voluntarily engaged in this conversation, thus Miranda did not apply.[30]

Howes v. Fields.
Randall Lee Fields was being held in a state prison for disorderly conduct when a corrections officer escorted him from his cell to a conference room.[31] Fields was not told where he was being taken or for what purpose.[32] Officers locked him in the room and questioned him for approximately seven hours regarding an unrelated allegation that took place outside of the prison.[33] He was not read his Miranda rights at any point during the interrogation, but was told that if he did not want to answer questions he was free to leave.[34] Mr. Fields did not request a lawyer or ask to go back to his cell, but he did repeatedly tell the officers that he did not want to speak to them anymore.[35] Mr. Fields eventually incriminated himself and the trial court denied his motion to suppress the inculpatory statements on Miranda grounds.[36] The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the decision below, holding that because Mr. Fields “‘was unquestionably in custody, but on a matter unrelated to the interrogation’” and “‘was told that he was free to leave the conference room and return to his cell. . .[but] never asked to leave. . .Miranda warnings were not required. . . .’”[37] On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed course and held that prisoners are always “in custody,” thus Miranda warnings are required whenever an inmate is isolated from the general prison population and questioned about an alleged crime occurring outside prison premises.[38]

The Supreme Court Must Affirm the Sixth Circuit Decision in Fields.
The Sixth Circuit correctly held that this un-Mirandaized, in-custody statement by Mr. Fields was contrary to Miranda principles and inconsistent under Mathis. Mathis and Fields are factually indistinguishable, thus it reasonably follows that Fields was in custody for purposes of Miranda.[39] However, while the facts of Mathis lend support to the bright line rule in Fields, the Supreme Court has yet to devise a rule regarding custody in a prison setting where a timely Miranda reading is required.[40] The applicable law for defining custody in this context is still Miranda. Under Miranda, procedural safeguards are required only if the suspect is (1) in custody and is (2) interrogated.[41] The suspect must be in custody such that there is a restraint on his freedom of movement.[42] The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that the issue of whether an interrogation took place was moot; both sides agreed that the seven-hour questioning of Mr. Fields was an interrogation.[43] Thus, the only question that remains for the court is whether Mr. Fields was in custody such that Miranda warnings were required. In making that determination, however, the court will look not only to restrictions on movement, but also whether the interrogation involved an element of coercion: a heavy police presence that generates “inherently compelling pressures” which compel the suspect to speak where he would otherwise not have done so.[44] Both elements were met during the interrogation of Mr. Fields.

Incarceration presents the kind of limitations on an inmate’s freedom of movement necessary for Miranda to apply. As stated in Miranda, “when an individual is taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of movement by the authorities in any significant way and is subjected to questioning, the privilege against self incrimination is jeopardized.”[45] The very nature of incarceration meets this test because even in minimum-security prisons, inmates are not allowed to leave. While inmates are allowed basic interactions with the outside world, such as meeting with visitors, sending or receiving mail, or making phone calls, they are essentially cut off from everything else. Isolation inside the prison restricts the inmate’s movement even further. In fact, the Supreme Court recently reaffirmed Miranda and has stated that isolating an inmate away from the prison population created the very kind of situation that Miranda sought to provide protection for.[46]

While some courts have looked for added impositions on an inmate’s freedom of movement, these cases involve conversations taking place outside of the custodial setting, such as on-the-scene questioning or voluntary statements, which are explicitly excluded by Miranda.[47] However, that distinction is immaterial in Fields because the custodial setting is evinced by the fact that the suspect was incarcerated at the time and subject to an isolated interrogation in the presence of officers under additional restrictions. Mr. Fields was taken from his prison cell to a conference room without being given an explanation.[48] The conference room was locked during the interrogation.[49] He was questioned in this police-dominated environment for nearly seven hours about a crime that occurred outside the prison.[50] While Mr. Fields was told by his interrogators that he was free to leave the room and return to this cell, the Sixth Circuit noted that leaving the conference room would have taken up to twenty minutes because a corrections officer would have to be called in to escort Mr. Fields back to his cell.[51] These additional restrictions, along with the fact that Mr. Fields was already incarcerated and subject to routine prison limitations, demonstrate that Mr. Fields was subject to the exact kind of “restraint on freedom of movement” that constitutes custody under Miranda.[52]    

The isolation of an inmate from the general prison population for purposes of questioning about conduct occurring outside of the prison involves the coercive pressures required for Miranda to apply. Fields does not suggest that inmates are in custody at all times, but it holds that isolation for the purposes of interrogation is indeed so coercive that Miranda ought to apply.[53] Isolation from the general prison population immediately changes the already restrictive nature of incarceration, where officers control nearly all of an inmate’s activities, into a coercive one. When isolated, the inmate is unable to reach out to anyone, including family and friends, and the public is entirely unaware of the interrogation. The interrogation may also be so highly secretive that only the inmate and the questioning police officers know that the interrogation is taking place. This isolation and incommunicado interrogation may lead the inmate to become wholly dependant upon his interrogators and conclude that he has no other choice but to cooperate.[54] In fact, the Supreme Court in Maryland v. Shatzer acknowledged that it is a reasonable presumption that inmates will cooperate with their interrogator if they believe the interrogator will control their fate.[55] The inherent secrecy surrounding interrogation inside of a prison lends itself to the kind of improper police conduct and arbitrary use of power that Miranda was meant to protect.[56] This lack of protection for inmates and coercive pressures of an isolated interrogation constitute custody for purposes of Miranda and protective measures should be required.

In Fields, corrections officers escorted Mr. Fields to a locked room without informing him why.[57] This reinforces the element of coercion because it shows that the interrogator alone is the one in control and that cooperating with officers, without concern over whether one will incriminate himself, will be the only way to return to normal life. In addition, Mr. Fields was in the presence of multiple officers for approximately seven hours, during which he was questioned about a specific crime that took place outside the prison and was unrelated to his offense of incarceration.[58] This was an interrogation as it was express questioning that was reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.[59] Officers informed Mr. Fields that he could leave the room at any point during the interrogation, but simply telling an inmate that he is free to leave does not negate the coercive nature of the interrogation and is insufficient grounds to not provide a Miranda reading. The Miranda Court specifically noted that interrogation techniques where officers tell the inmate he is free to leave or can remain silent are methods of eliciting confessions.[60] Furthermore, the claim that the environment was not coercive because officers told Mr. Fields he could leave was negated by the fact that the interrogators ignored his repeated requests to be left alone and that he did not want to answer any more questions, which the interrogators would have had to respect under Miranda.[61]

The Supreme Court must affirm the bright line rule devised in Fields because it will provide lower courts with proper guidance when applying Miranda. The scope of this decision will not be sweeping, as Fields does not address all kinds of questioning in a prison setting, but rather an isolated interrogation regarding an alleged crime that occurred outside of the prison. Since Mathis, lower courts have tried to reconcile the Court’s reasoning in that case with Miranda. Some cases have addressed questioning about crimes that occurred inside of a prison, such as the on-the-scene questioning that was at issue in the Ninth Circuit case, Cervantes v. Walker.[62] Subsequent cases have dealt with isolated questioning of inmates regarding crimes occurring outside a prison, but have either concluded that the inmate was not in custody for purposes of Miranda despite isolation from the general prison population[63] or failed to demonstrate any element of coercion between the inmate and corrections officer.[64] The distinctions that courts have attempted to draw, however, are “minor and shadowy,” as has been previously stated by the Court.[65] Nothing in Miranda or Mathis calls for curtailing the warnings in a situation such as in Fields, where a suspect was deprived of his freedom in a significant way and interrogated, and was thus in custody for Miranda purposes.  

Conclusion. Reading a suspect his Miranda warnings is more than just a formality; it informs suspects of their legal rights prior to interrogation and that if they wish to exercise those rights, now is the time. The Sixth Circuit’s bright line rule in Howes v. Fields clarifies an instance where police officers should read inmates their Miranda warnings. The Supreme Court should affirm Fields and create a bright line rule that requires officers to read inmates their Miranda warnings when they isolate an inmate from the general population for purposes of questioning on an alleged crime that occurred outside of the prison. In doing so, they will breathe new life into Miranda, provide guidance to police officers, and help alleviate the burden on lower courts who are charged with determining the circumstances of an interrogation that takes place inside a prison. Reading a suspect his rights under Miranda is part of our national police practice and creating this bright line rule will help preserve the protections the Fifth Amendment was designed to provide.

[1] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444-45 (1966).
[2] Id. at 444; see also Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984) (the only relevant inquiry in determining whether one is custody for Miranda purposes is how a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood his/her situation); Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318 (1994) (devising the analytical framework for determining custody; determination of whether a suspect is in custody depends on the objective circumstances of the interrogation, not the subjective views of the suspect or interrogating officers); Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 665 (2004) (determining whether a suspect is in custody for Miranda purposes depends on whether a reasonable person in the same situation would feel that he was free to leave); Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99 (1995) (determining custody involves two inquiries: (1) circumstances surrounding the interrogation and (2) given those circumstances, whether a reasonable person would have felt he or she was not free to end the interrogation and leave).
[3] Fields v. Howes, 617 F.3d 813, 819-20 (6th Cir. 2010), cert. granted, 131 S. Ct. 1047 (2011).
[4] U.S. Const. amend. V.
[5] See Brown v. Walker, 161 U.S. 591, 596-97 (1896) (discussing the common law history behind the Fifth Amendment).
[6] Id. at 471.
[7] Id. at 470-74 (holding that statements made during a “custodial interrogation” are inadmissible unless the suspect was provided full procedural safeguards for protecting his/her Fifth Amendment rights during questioning. The police must inform the suspect prior to interrogation that: (1) the suspect has a right to remain silent; (2) anything said can and will be used against the suspect in court; (3) the suspect has the right to consult with an attorney and to have his lawyer present during interrogation; (4) if the suspect is indigent a lawyer will be appointed to represent him).
[8] Mathis v. United States, 391 U.S. 1 (1968).
[9] Id. at 2.
[10] Id. at 2-3.
[11] Id. at 2.
[12] Id. at 4.
[13] Mathis, 391 U.S. at 4.
[14] Id.
[15] Id. (quoting Miranda, 384 U.S. at 478) (upholding the broad definition of custody found in Miranda: “…we hold that when an individual is taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom by the authorities in any significant way and is subjected to questioning, the privilege against self-incrimination is jeopardized.”).
[16] Cervantes v. Walker, 589 F.2d 424 (9th Cir. 1978).
[17] Id. at 426.
[18] Id.
[19] Id. at 426-27.
[20] Id. at 427.
[21] Cervantes, 589 F.2d at 427.
[22] Id.
[23] Id. at 428. The four factors are: (1) the language used to summon the inmate; (2) the physical surroundings of the interrogation; (3) the extent to which the inmate is confronted with evidence of his guilt; and (4) any additional pressures inflicted upon the inmate.
[24] Id.
[25] See United States v. Conley, 779 F.2d 970 (4th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 830 (1986) (holding that an inmate was not in custody when a corrections officer took him to a conference room to await medical treatment and questioned him while they were waiting); United States v. Chamberlin, 163 F.3d 499, 503 (8th Cir. 1998) (devising a totality of the circumstances test based on the six factor test that emerged from United States v. Griffin, 922 F.2d 1343 (8th Cir. 1990). The test calls for consideration of how the inmate got into the room in which he is questioned and the atmosphere of the room upon his arrival and during questioning); United States v. Scalf, 725 F.2d 1272, 1275 (10th Cir. 1984) (Questioning of an inmate after the inmate was locked in his own cell and questioned about an assault by an officer standing outside did not require Miranda warnings); Garcia v. Singletary, 13 F.3d 1487, 1491 (11th Cir. 1994) (holding that an inmates freedom of movement was not further restrained when an officer removed the inmate from his cell in order to put out a fire and then questioned the inmate on why he started the fire).
[26] United States v. Menzer, 29 F.3d 1223, 1232 (7th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1002 (1994).
[27] See Cervantes, 589 F.2d at 428.
[28] See United States v. Willoughby, 860 F.2d 15, 24 (2nd Cir. 1988) (talking voluntarily to a girlfriend who had agreed to wear a wire did not constitute custody for purposes of Miranda); Leviston v. Black, 843 F.2d 302 (8th Cir. 1988) (holding that an inmate who called the police and asked to speak to officers about a robbery did not constitute custody); United States v. Turner, 28 F.3d 981, 983 (9th Cir. 1994) (calling a postal agent to ask about an investigation and then answering questions himself was a voluntary conversation for Miranda purposes).
[29] United States v. Willoughby, 860 F.2d 15, 17 (2d Cir. 1988)
[30] Id. at 24.
[31] Fields v. Howes, 617 F.3d 813, 815 (6th Cir. 2010), cert. granted, 131 S. Ct. 1047 (2011).
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Fields, 617 F.3d at 815.
[37] Id. at 816 (quoting People v. Fields, 689 N.W.2d 233 (Mich. 2004)).
[38] Id. at 820.
[39] Id. (stating unequivocally that Mathis is the applicable law).
[40] Maryland v. Shatzer, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 1224 (2010) (acknowledging that the Court has “never decided. . .and [had] indeed explicitly declined to address” whether incarceration constitutes custody); Mathis, 391 U.S. at 4 (deferring to the Miranda Court’s definition of custody).
[41] See, e.g., Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 300 (“It is clear therefore that the special procedural safeguards outlined in Miranda are required not where a suspect is simply taken into custody, but rather where a suspect in custody is subjected to interrogation.”)
[42] Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444; See also Innis, 446 U.S. at 301-02 (stating that interrogation under Miranda is “express questioning or its functional equivalent” that law enforcement officers “should know [is] reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.”)
[43] Fields, 617 F.3d at 817-18.
[44] Miranda, 384 U.S. at 467.
[45] Id. at 478.
[46] Shatzer, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 1224 (2010) (stating that all forms of incarceration satisfy the freedom of movement test of Miranda).
[47] See e.g., Cervantes v. Walker, 589 F.2d 424, 428 (9th Cir. 1978) (requiring restrictions on freedom of movement beyond that of a normal prison setting); see also Miranda, 384 U.S. at 477 (excluding on the scene questioning in order to not burden police investigations as long as the inmate was not restrained).
[48] Id. at 819.
[49] Id.
[50] Fields, 617 F.3d 813, 815.
[51] Id. at 827-28.
[52] Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 495 (1997); See also Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 654-55 (2004) (Determining custody involves use of objective factors that would lead a reasonable person to believe that he/she was not free to “terminate the interview and leave”).
[53] See Shatzer, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 1224 (citing Illinois v. Perkins, 496 U.S. 292, 297 (1990)) (“Miranda . . . was designed to guard against . . . the ‘danger of coercion [that] results from the interaction of custody and official interrogation.’”).
[54] See Miranda, 384 U.S. at 457-58, 476 (discussing the inherently intimidating interrogation environment that undermines the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination).
[55] Shatzer, 130 S. Ct. at 1220 (stating that compulsion is likely when there is the “appearance” that the questioning police officer controls the inmate’s fate).
[56] See Miranda, 384 U.S. at 447 (citing police manuals that state that isolation from the general population is a form of interrogation).
[57] Fields, 617 F.3d at 815.
[58] Id.
[59] See Innis, 446 U.S. at 301–02 (defining interrogation for purposes of Miranda).
[60] Miranda, 384 U.S. at 454.
[61] Fields, 617 F.3d at 815.
[62] See supra note 25.
[63] E.g., United States v. Menzer, 29 F.3d 1223 (7th Cir. 1994) (holding that an inmate is not “in custody” when he is questioned by police while incarcerated since there was no added restriction on his freedom of movement or compulsion beyond the incarceration).
[64] E.g., Leviston v. Black, 843 F.2d 302, 303 (8th Cir. 1988) (reasoning that because the inmate initiated the conversation with officers regarding the crime, the atmosphere of the interrogation was not coercive); See also supra note 27.
[65] Mathis, 391 U.S. at 4.

Trisha Chokshi currently holds the position of Editor-in-Chief for the Northern Illinois University Law Review. Ms. Chokshi earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from DePaul University in 2007 and expects to receive her J.D. from Northern Illinois University College of Law in May 2012.

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