Howes v. Fields (2012)

___ U.S. ___ (2012)

Vote: 6 (Alito, Kagan, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas) 
3 (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor)

Opinion of the Court: Alito
Dissenting Opinion: Ginsburg


While serving a sentence in a Michigan jail for disorderly conduct, Randall Fields was escorted by a corrections officer to a conference room where two armed 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. Fields arrived at the conference room between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and was questioned for between 5 and 7 hours. During the interview, he remained free of handcuffs and other restraints and was given water, but he was not given his evening medication of antirejection drugs for his kidney transplant or his antidepressant.

After an outburst, Field was told 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’s 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. At no time was Fields given Miranda warnings or advised that he did not have to speak with the deputies.

Michigan charged Fields with criminal sexual conduct. Relying on Miranda, Fields moved to suppress his confession, but the trial court denied his motion. Over the objection of defense counsel, one of the interviewing deputies testified at trial about Fields’s admissions. The jury convicted Fields of two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, and the judge sentenced him to a term of 10 to 15 years of imprisonment.

The state courts affirmed his conviction, but the federal courts held that the interview in the conference room was a “custodial interrogation” within the meaning of Miranda and that the state court’s decision was contrary to clearly established precedent. According to the court of appeals, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mathis v. United States(1968) “clearly established” that isolation from the general prison population, combined with questioning about conduct occurring outside the prison, makes any such interrogation custodial per se.



The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that our precedents clearly establish that a prisoner is in custody within the meaning of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) if the prisoner is taken aside and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison walls. Our decisions, however, do not clearly establish such a rule. . . . Indeed, the rule applied by the court below does not represent a correct interpretation of our Miranda case law. We therefore reverse. . . .

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 inMiranda. “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 . . . 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[.]”

It may be thought that the situation in Berkemer—the questioning of a motorist subjected to a brief traffic stop—is worlds away from those present when an inmate is questioned in a prison, but the same cannot be said of Shatzer, where we again distinguished between restraints on freedom of movement and Miranda custody. . . . We held in Shatzer that this rule does not apply when there is a sufficient break in custody between the suspect’s invocation of the right to counsel and the initiation of subsequent questioning. And, what is significant for present purposes, we further held that a break in custody may occur while a suspect is serving a term in prison. If a break in custody can occur while a prisoner is serving an uninterrupted term of imprisonment, it must follow that imprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda.

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. “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.

The two other elements included in the Court of Appeals’ rule—questioning in private and questioning about events that took place outside the prison—are likewise insufficient.

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 Miranda applies.” 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. . . . 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.

It is true that taking a prisoner aside for questioning may necessitate some additional limitations on his freedom of movement. A prisoner may, for example, be removed from an exercise yard and taken, under close guard, to the room where the interview is to be held. But such procedures are an ordinary and familiar attribute of life behind bars. . . .

Finally, we fail to see why questioning about criminal activity outside the prison should be regarded as having a significantly greater potential for coercion than questioning under otherwise identical circumstances about criminal activity within the prison walls. In both instances, there is the potential for additional criminal liability and punishment. If anything, the distinction would seem to cut the other way, as an inmate who confesses to misconduct that occurred within the prison may also incur administrative penalties, but even this is not enough to tip the scale in the direction of custody. “The threat to a citizen’s Fifth Amendment rights that Miranda was designed to neutralize” is neither mitigated nor magnified by the location of the conduct about which questions are asked.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeals’ categorical rule is unsound. . . .

The record in this case reveals that respondent was not taken into custody for purposes of Miranda. To be sure, respondent did not invite the interview or consent to it in advance, and he was not advised that he was free to decline to speak with the deputies. The following facts also lend some support to respondent’s argument that Miranda’s custody requirement was met: The interview lasted for between five and seven hours in the evening and continued well past the hour when respondent generally went to bed; the deputies who questioned respondent were armed; and one of the deputies, according to respondent, “[u]sed a very sharp tone,” and, on one occasion, profanity.

These circumstances, however, were offset by others. Most important, respondent was told at the outset of the interrogation, and was reminded again thereafter, that he could leave and go back to his cell whenever he wanted. Moreover, respondent was not physically restrained or threatened and was interviewed in a well-lit, average-sized conference room, where he was “not uncomfortable.” He was offered food and water, and the door to the conference room was sometimes left open. “All of these objective facts are consistent with an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave.”

Because he was in prison, respondent was not free to leave the conference room by himself and to make his own way through the facility to his cell. Instead, he was escorted to the conference room and, when he ultimately decided to end the interview, he had to wait about 20 minutes for a corrections officer to arrive and escort him to his cell. But he would have been subject to this same restraint even if he had been taken to the conference room for some reason other than police questioning; under no circumstances could he have reasonably expected to be able to roam free. . . .

Taking into account all of the circumstances of the questioning—including especially the undisputed fact that respondent was told that he was free to end the questioning and to return to his cell—we hold that respondent was not in custody within the meaning of Miranda.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is



. . . I disagree with the Court’s further determination that Fields was not in custody under Miranda . . . I would vote to hold that Miranda precludes the State’s introduction of Fields’s confession as evidence against him. . . .

Fields, serving time for disorderly conduct, was, of course, “i[n] custody,” but not “for purposes of Miranda,” the Court concludes. I would not train, as the Court does, on the question whether there can be custody within custody. Instead, I would ask, as Miranda put it, whether Fields was subjected to “incommunicado interrogation . . . in a police-dominated atmosphere,” whether he was placed, against his will, in an inherently stressful situation, and whether his “freedom of action [was] curtailed in any significant way.” Those should be the key questions, and to each I would answer “Yes.”

As the Court acknowledges, Fields did not invite or consent to the interview. He was removed from his cell in the evening, taken to a conference room in the sheriff’s quarters, and questioned by two armed deputies long into the night and early morning. He was not told at the outset that he had the right to decline to speak with the deputies. Shut in with the armed officers, Fields felt “trapped.” Although told he could return to his cell if he did not want to cooperate, Fields believed the deputies “would not have allowed [him] to leave the room.” And with good reason. More than once, “he told the officers . . . he did not want to speak with them anymore.” He was given water, App. to but not his evening medications. Yet the Court concludes that Fields was in “an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave.”

Critical to the Court’s judgment is “the undisputed fact that [Fields] was told that he was free to end the questioning and to return to his cell.” Never mind the facts suggesting that Fields’s submission to the overnight interview was anything but voluntary. Was Fields “held for interrogation”? Brought to, and left alone with, the gun-bearing deputies, he surely was in my judgment. . . .

Today, for people already in prison, the Court finds it adequate for the police to say: “You are free to terminate this interrogation and return to your cell.” Such a statement is no substitute for one ensuring that an individual is aware of his rights. . . .

I would hold that the “incommunicado interrogation [of Fields] in a police-dominated atmosphere,” without informing him of his rights, dishonored the Fifth Amendment privilege Miranda was designed to safeguard.