Questioning an Inmate About an Unrelated Crime? Miranda Warnings?

By March 22, 2012Miranda

Howes v. FieldsHowes v. Fields is a U.S. Supreme Court Case that was released on February 21, 2012.  In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that there is no bright line rule for determining when an inmate is in “custody,” such that Miranda warnings are required if officers wish to questions him about an unrelated crime.

While serving a jail sentence, a corrections officer escorted Fields to a conference room where two police officers questioned him about an unrelated crime.  At the beginning of the interview, the officers told Fields that he could leave whenever he wanted.  Fields eventually confessed to the crime.  The officers never advised Fields of his Miranda warnings or told him that he did not have to speak with him.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that any time an inmate is taken from the general prison population and questioned about a crime that occurred outside the prison, he is always in-custody for Miranda purposes.  Makes sense, right?
The Supreme Court disagreed.  The Court held that serving a term of imprisonment, by itself, is not enough to constitute Miranda custody.  When a prisoner is questioned, the determination of Miranda custody should focus on all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, to include the language that is used in summoning the prisoner to the interview and the manner in which the interrogation is conducted.

In this case, the Court held that Fields was not in-custody for Miranda purposes.  Although the interview lasted between five and seven hours and continued well past the time Fields went to bed, the officers told Fields several times that he could leave and go back to his cell whenever he wanted.  Additionally, the interview was conducted in comfortable conference room, the officers did not physically restrain or threaten Fields and they offered him food and water.  All of these facts are consistent with an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave.