You have identified a suspect in your investigation.  You learn that he is now living in the county jail—doing a few weeks for Disorderly Conduct.  You want to interview him and you review some basic rules beforehand.  Is he the focus of your investigation?  Do you suspect him?  Do you have probable cause to arrest him?  That was the law prior to 1977!!  (Oregon v. Mathiason)

Since then, the only question you must answer is one of custody.  The test is whether “a reasonable person would have felt he was not at liberty to terminate the interview and leave.”  That is the beginning of the inquiry, not the end.

On a routine arrest, the suspect is brought into the interview room.  He is not free to leave. He may be under some stress because of the arrest, which constitutes an “onerous change” in his status and “may give rise to coercive pressures.”  He may have some interest in agreeing to what the detectives say hoping to please them so they may go easier on him.  He wants to leave.  He knows the police have discretion to charge or release him.

A major change in this area of the law occurred on Feb 21, 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Howes v. Fields in deciding when Miranda rights must be given to inmates being questioned.  Earlier cases focused on the definition of custody.  Interviews in prison present a different issue. Not all restraints on freedom of movement amount to custody for Miranda purposes, See Berkemer v. McCarty (1984) (questioning during a traffic stop does not need to be preceded with warnings, despite the motorist not being able to leave until the investigation is over or the summons is issued.)  Also relied upon was a 1990 case, Illinois v Perkins, where an undercover officer was inserted into a prison and influenced an inmate to confide in him.  While these are clearly custodial situations, there was no need for Miranda as there was no coerciveness to the interview.

Now the court (6-3) returned to the intent of Miranda:  to prevent a coercive atmosphere that the warnings were designed to guard against.  Based upon all the factors presented, the court ruled that Randall Fields was not under such an atmosphere and therefore Miranda warnings were not required.

a) Being in jail (Fields was serving 45 days for disorderly conduct in the county jail), while clearly custodial, does not have the shock of an immediate arrest, and there was no hope of being lured into waiving his rights hoping to gain an immediate release,

b) The incident he was questioned about occurred prior to his current incarceration,

c) After being brought to a conference room, Fields was told he was free to leave and return to his cell (there are several cases finding no custody when the subject was told he was free to leave and not Mirandized).

d) Fields was not handcuffed, and the door to the conference room was on occasion left open,

e) While the subject did say several times he no longer wanted to talk, he never asked to be taken back to his cell.

f)  The subject, when confronted with the allegation of a sexual assault on a minor, became upset and began yelling.  The investigators told him if he did not want to cooperate, he could leave. He did not.

The holding of this case was that “service of a term of imprisonment, without more, is not enough to constitute Miranda custody.”

In-custody jail or prison inmates live in the institution.  They have an absolute right to terminate the interview and return to their work station or cell.  They may “get up and leave.”    They are not confined to the interview room as a new arrestee is.  They have not been “cut off from his normal life and companions and abruptly transported to a police dominated atmosphere.” They are not in custody for Miranda purposes.

David M. Waksman, J.D., is a nationally known former homicide prosecutor with vast experience in trying violent offenders and a former sergeant with the NYPD. He served for 35 years with the Miami-Dade (Fla.) State Attorney’s Office, primarily in the Major Crimes Division. Waksman teaches Case Preparation and Courtroom Presentation, Police Involved Shootings, Injury and Death Investigation and Criminal Law at the Miami Dade College School of Justice, In-Service Training Unit and at various police departments in South Florida.  His specialty is Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues. Waksman has tried almost 200 jury trials, including 79 for first-degree murder. He is the author of the Search and Seizure Handbook, 3/ed.  It was cited by the United States Supreme Court in Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586 (2006), available from Prentice Hall. He can be reached at [email protected] or thru LET.