When is an incarcerated suspect not in ‘custody?’

Common sense indicates that a person who is being held in prison is basically always in state custody. But for purposes of criminal interrogation and Miranda warnings, the U.S. Supreme Court says this is not the case. In fact, even when a prisoner is pulled from the general population and questioned for five to seven hours by armed law enforcement officers, the Supreme Court say this still may not be a ‘custodial’ interrogation triggering the requirement for a Miranda warning.

This issue arose with an inmate who was in prison on charges of disorderly conduct. While he was imprisoned, he was interrogated regarding a separate incident that took place outside of the correctional facility. During that interrogation, he was never given the Miranda warning, nor was he told that he did not have to speak with the officers. Because he was never given this warning, he sought to have the statements he made during the interrogation suppressed so that they could not be used against him in a criminal trial.

A federal court of appeals ruled that his statements should be suppressed because the interview was a custodial interrogation for the purpose of Miranda. As you may know, the Fifth Amendment prohibits compulsory self-incrimination and the Miranda case established that interrogators must inform suspects of their right to remain silent. The appellate court relied on seemingly clear prior case law from the Supreme Court which said that a Miranda warning must be given whenever an inmate is removed from the general population and questioned about events that took place outside of the correctional facility.

However, the majority of the justices on the Supreme Court disagreed with the appeals court and ruled that this was not a custodial interrogation. This ruling meant that any statements made by the suspect could be used against him in a criminal trial. The court said that because the interrogators told him that he could return to his cell if he wanted to, this meant that the interrogation was not custodial.

The suspect in this case explained that he did indeed feel trapped, and that he did not believe the officers would have allowed him to go back to his cell if he had asked to do so. The suspect informed the officers several times that he did not want to speak with him anymore.

This incident raises the question of why the he was never informed of his right to remain silent during the course of an interrogation lasting five to seven hours not ending until the wee hours of the morning. It seems that the only purpose could have been to avoid having the suspect invoke this constitutional right.

Source: U.S. Supreme Court, “HOWES, WARDEN v. FIELDS,” Feb. 21, 2012