Miranda: When Custody Isn’t ‘Custody’

Inmate interrogation is not necessarily subject to Miranda.

The rationale of Miranda holds that (1) a person confronted with custodial police interrogation is presumed to be so stressed by the experience that he or she will feel compelled to answer questions and make statements; (2) the Fifth Amendment forbids compelled self-incrimination; and therefore (3) statements obtained from custodial interrogation are inadmissible to prove guilt at trial; unless (4) the presumed compulsion has been neutralized by the now-familiar four-part warning.

The Miranda opinion gave lower court judges, lawyers, and police officers what Chief Justice Warren described as “concrete constitutional guidelines” for applying the Miranda rules: the warnings would be required in order to make a statement admissible if police interrogation occurred after the suspect had been “taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom in any significant way.” This “concrete” definition of “custody” proved to be more like quicksand.

Of the 55 subsequent Supreme Court opinions on Miranda issues, 14 have involved attempts to clarify the meaning of “custody,” and in 12 of those 14, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of state and federal appellate courts, which got it wrong. No wonder the Supreme Court has now admitted that “the task of defining ‘custody’ is a slippery one.” (Oregon v. Elstad)

Three Supreme Court rulings have dealt with the particular problem of deciding whether Miranda applies when officers go to a jail or prison to question an inmate. If the suspect is already incarcerated, isn’t he under even greater restraint than when, like Ernesto Miranda, he’s simply handcuffed and taken to the station under arrest? The first encounter with this issue arose in 1968, only two years after Miranda v. Arizona was decided.

Mathis v. U.S.

Robert T. Mathis was an inmate in a Florida prison on state convictions when federal agents went there to question him about tax crimes. They gave no Miranda warnings. Mathis made incriminating statements which were used to obtain his conviction. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mathis claimed that he should have been Mirandized, and the court majority agreed. Repeating the “concrete” definition of “custody” contained in the Miranda decision, the court ruled that Mathis was subjected to custodial interrogation without warnings, and his convictions were reversed.

In dissent, three justices (who had also dissented in Miranda) disagreed with the court’s finding of “custody.” These justices pointed out that as an inmate accustomed to the prison environment, Mathis was in familiar surroundings when he was questioned, which should have dispelled the presumption of compulsion that arises when a person at-large is arrested by the police and taken in for questioning.

The rationale advanced by the Mathis dissenters was subsequently adopted by some lower courts to distinguish inmate interrogation from arrestee interrogation. (U.S. v. Willoughby—2nd Circuit; U.S. v. Cooper—4th Circuit; U.S. v. Menzer—7th Circuit; U.S. v. Ingle—8th Circuit; U.S. v. Turner—9th Circuit; U.S. v. Grimes—11th Circuit) It was not until 2010 that the Supreme Court next considered the issue of inmate “custody.”

Maryland v. Shatzer

Michael B. Shatzer was serving his sentence in a Maryland correctional facility when police tried to question him about an unsolved crime. The investigating officer Mirandized Shatzer, who invoked his right to counsel. Questioning stopped, and Shatzer was returned to the general population. The investigation was dropped.

Two years and six months later, a different investigator re-opened the case and went back to the prison to talk to Shatzer. Questioning took place in a maintenance room. Shatzer was again Mirandized, and this time he waived and confessed. Convicted on the new charges, Shatzer appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which reversed the convictions. This court focused on the fact that two and one-half years before confessing, Shatzer had invoked his right to counsel, which made him “question-proof” as long as he remained in custody. The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then reversed the Maryland court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court first created an arbitrary time limit as to how long an invocation of counsel would be effective against subsequent interrogation once the suspect has been released from custody (14 days). The court next ruled that returning an inmate to the general population constitutes a “break in custody,” because (echoing the Mathis dissent) he has been put back into his familiar surroundings. Since Shatzer had been released from custody long enough to dissolve his prior invocation of counsel, his subsequent waiver was valid and his statement admissible.

The court noted that the prosecution had not raised an issue as to whether or not Shatzer’s questioning had been custodial, saying “No one questions that Shatzer was in custody during the interviews.” And in a footnote, the court said that “When a prisoner is removed from the general population and taken to a separate location for questioning,” his circumstances have changed to “interrogative custody.” These comments were seized upon by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to support its decision in the latest inmate case reviewed by the Supreme Court, in 2012.

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