Michigan case U.S. Supreme Court: Must police re-Mirandize for a new charge?

by Kimberly Atkins, Esq.

The Daily Record Newswire

DETROIT, MI -- The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court considered on Oct 4 whether a jail inmate must be Mirandized before police can question him about an unrelated charge.

The case, Howes v. Fields, involves Randall Fields, who was jailed on a charge of disorderly conduct when police questioned him over unrelated allegations that he had sex with a minor.

After seven hours of questioning and repeatedly saying he no longer wanted to talk, the defendant admitted to two acts of sexual conduct with the minor. He was convicted on the sex charge.

On appeal, Fields argued that his confessions should have been inadmissible because he was not read his Miranda rights before he was questioned about the alleged sex with a minor.

The Michigan Court of Appeals denied the appeal, ruling that Fields was free to return to the jail and not answer questions about the alleged sexual conduct.

But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Miranda warnings must be administered when law enforcement officers remove an inmate from the general prison population and interrogate him regarding criminal conduct that took place outside the jail.

The state successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.

Matter of circumstances?

At oral arguments, as soon as Michigan Solicitor General John J. Bursch began his argument that there should be no per se rule requiring prisoners to be Mirandized before each line of questioning, Justice Sonia Sotomayor jumped in.

"Don't you think being in custody itself is a circumstance" that requires a warning, Sotomayor asked.

"Sure, it's a circumstance that goes into the 'all-the-circumstances' mix" of Miranda analysis, Bursch said.

"What's all this 'all-circumstances mix'?" Sotomayor asked.

"I thought that our case law was fairly clear that 'all-circumstances' is a test for voluntariness. I thought the issue under Miranda [is]: Is the person free to go or not? When did we import ... voluntariness into the Miranda test?"

"[The] test would be whether a reasonable person in the prisoner's position felt that they were free to go back to their cell in accord with reasonable, ordinary prison procedures," Bursch said.

"So what makes this case different?" Sotomayor asked.

"He was in a room that was not locked," Bursch said. "He was not shackled. He was not threatened. [And] when he started to become belligerent, the guards told him that: If you don't want to cooperate, then you will have to go back to your cell."

Sotomayor pointed to the record, which stated that Fields asked to leave twice, and "it took 20 minutes, and they continued the questioning."

"The fact that it could have been 20 minutes, it could have been 30 seconds, it could have been an hour, depending on procedures, demonstrates why a per se rule doesn't make sense," Bursch said.

Bright-line rule?

Elizabeth Jacobs, a Detroit-based appellate attorney, argued on Fields' behalf that the determination of whether a suspect is free to leave "should not be given the same weight in prison as out."

"Well, it certainly doesn't mean he can leave the prison," Justice Antonin Scalia noted.

"Right," Jacobs said.

"But isn't that the only difference?" Scalia asked. "At a minimum [it could] mean he can leave the interrogation."

"The prisoner had to rely on the sheriff's deputies that were interrogating in order to effectuate his freedom," Jacobs said.

"And in fact, he has testified that he said he wanted [to] leave [but couldn't]. Why not? Because at that point, no one allowed him to leave because the officers hadn't gotten the answers they wanted."

"What is the rule that you want us to adopt?" Justice Samuel Alito asked. "If you want to question anyone in prison about anything, you have to give them Miranda warnings?"

"No," Jacobs said. "[But] a police officer coming from the outside to the inside to talk about a crime occurring on the outside must be given a Miranda warning."

"How is that consistent with the totality of circumstances test that we've always insisted upon in Miranda cases?" asked Justice Elena Kagan.

"There are already bright-line rules attached to Miranda, so [I don't think setting] a bright-line rule ... is outside the purview of Miranda law. And it's easier for the officers to apply."

A ruling is expected later this term.

Published: Thu, Oct 13, 2011

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