Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court held that police officers do not need to read prison inmates their Miranda rights when questioning them about events unrelated to their current incarceration.  Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a six-justice majority, overturned the decision by the Sixth Circuit, which had held that prison inmate Randall Lee Fields’ constitutional rights had been violated under Miranda v. Arizona.

The case before the court was Howes v. Fields.  Fields had been incarcerated for disorderly conduct.  While serving his sentence, he was escorted from his jail cell to a locked conference room on the premises, where he was questioned for five to seven hours by two police deputies about an event unrelated to his incarceration: engaging in sexual conduct with a 12-year-old boy.  Fields was not read his Miranda rights, but was told that if he did not want to cooperate he was free to leave the conference room at any time.  He did not ask for an attorney or to go back to his cell.  Fields, however, told the officers more than once that he did not want to speak with them anymore, and at one point he became angry and started yelling.  The officers cursed at him, telling him to sit down and that he could leave if he did not want to cooperate.  During the questioning, Fields first denied but eventually admitted the sexual conduct allegations.

When Fields was later prosecuted for criminal sexual conduct, his confession was admitted into evidence.  After being convicted and sentenced to a ten to fifteen year prison term, Fields challenged the admissibility of the statements under Miranda, but lost his appeal in a Michigan appellate court.  He then sought habeas relief in federal court, which was granted on the grounds that the state court had unreasonably applied the Supreme Court’s Miranda precedents.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed, stating that under Miranda and its progeny, “a Miranda warning is required whenever an incarcerated individual is isolated from the general prison population and interrogated . . . about conduct occurring outside of the prison.”


There were actually two questions before the court in this case.  The court could have restricted its holding to the first inquiry: whether Fields had successfully demonstrated that his case could properly be appealed to a federal court.  Fields’ case was in federal court through a habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), under which the district court and Sixth Circuit found that the relevant requirement to granting habeas relief had been met: “[did the state court proceeding result] in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States?”  The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed with the Sixth Circuit, stating that “it is abundantly clear that our precedents do not clearly establish the categorical rule on which the Court of Appeals relied.” Thus, all nine justices held that the federal court system did not have jurisdiction to hear Fields’ appeal, because whether and how Miranda rights applied to this case were not “clearly established” by Supreme Court precedent.

The court could have ended its analysis here.  In fact, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, writing for the three justices who concurred as to this first question but dissented as to the rest of Justice Alito’s opinion, implied that the next question—whether Miranda warnings were required in Fields’ case—was not even properly before the court.  But a majority of the court decided to go further, and address the scope of Miranda. In 1966, the Supreme Court held in Miranda that the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination (no person “shall be compelled in any case to be a witness against himself . . .”) applied to a criminal suspect subjected to custodial interrogation.  Miranda held that in such situations, the Fifth Amendment required that suspects be informed of their now-familiar rights: “a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.”

Justice Alito’s opinion concludes that Randall Fields was not “in custody for Miranda purposes” at the time of questioning, and therefore that Fields was not constitutionally entitled to receive the warnings set out under Miranda.  Part III-A of the opinion starts off with the court’s general framework for determining whether a custodial situation exists, for Miranda purposes:

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 ‘gauged’ his ‘freedom of movement,’ courts must examine ‘all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation.’

The court then argues that “for at least three strong grounds,” imprisonment does not necessarily create the serious threat of coercion that gives rise to the need for Miranda warnings under the Fifth Amendment.  First, without reference to any studies, law review articles, or even other cases, the majority asserts that “questioning a person who is already serving a prison term does not generally involve the shock that very often accompanies arrest.”  Second, Justice Alito states that a prisoner is “unlikely to be lured into speaking by a longing for release” from prison, as compared to a person who is not incarcerated and may feel pressure to answer questions by the hope that he or she will be allowed to leave and go home after doing so.  Finally, the court claims that a prisoner “knows that the law enforcement officers who question him probably lack the authority to affect the duration of his sentence.”  These factors, combined with the facts of the case, convinced the court that Fields was not “in custody” for Miranda purposes.

It is hard to view Justice Alito’s opinion as anything but a rejection of Miranda.  Fields was in prison, questioned for five to seven hours late into the night in a secured room, and sworn at by armed state officials, who continued to question him even after his repeated insistence that he did not want to be questioned any more.  Justice Alito admits that these facts lend “some support to respondent’s argument that Miranda’s custody argument was met,” but then states that these circumstances were offset by others, the “most important” being “the undisputed fact that [Fields] was told that he was free to end the questioning and return to his cell.”  Alito is in effect arguing that the interrogation was reasonable.  The Miranda case itself, however, did not frame the question as one of “reasonableness.”  Instead, Miranda required that all of the components of a Miranda warning must be given “when an individual is taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom by the authorities in any significant way and is subjected to questioning.”  This definition seems to encompass Fields’ situation; the majority’s claim that Fields was not “in custody” is unconvincing.  The decision can instead be seen as a shift away from the “in custody” inquiry, to a totality test that is distinct from Miranda: whether all the surrounding circumstances suggest that the persons being questioned should be entitled to have their rights fully stated to them.  One point of interest regarding future Miranda cases is that in the last significant Supreme Court decision on the scope of such rights, Berghuis v. Thompkins, the court also ruled in favor of the state, but the justices split 5-4.  What has changed since?  Justice John Paul Stevens sided with the dissenting justices in Thompkins.  In this case, his replacement—Justice Kagan—sided with the majority to make the vote 6-3.

In a dissenting opinion to Dickerson v. Unites States, decided in 2000, Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote that “it is simply no longer possible for the Court to conclude, even if it wanted to, that a violation of Miranda’s rules is a violation of the Constitution.”  Although Howes v. Fields goes to great lengths to show that the court’s analysis falls within the Miranda framework, Justice Alito’s opinion hints that the court is moving towards the position Scalia took in Dickerson—that the scope of protection under the Fifth Amendment should be narrowed in a way that suggests that a violation of Miranda’s rules will not always be considered a violation of the Constitution.

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  • I agree with the conclusion that the formalism in the way Justice Alito applied Miranda is disingenuous, and that this case should be read as hostile to Miranda itself. I am also concerned with Justice Kagan’s decision to join the majority because I believe the majority in this case is wrong. The fact that the former prosecutor, Justice Sotomayor, is less deferential to law enforcement than Justice Kagan is an interesting statement on how little we knew about Kagan’s jurisprudential philosophy before her appointment. She spent her life not expressing strong opinions to prepare for an appointment to the Supreme Court. It worked out well for her, maybe not so for progressive criminal procedure protections.

    I don’t think a move away from the formalism of Miranda to a more substantive analysis of the reasonableness of police action is necessarily a negative development, however. I think this case is wrong on a number of levels. First, it is completely illogical to suggest that an incarcerated prisoner is not “in custody.” The formalism of the test is what allows Alito to come to a patently false conclusion. The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination is the reason Miranda exists, and the application of Miranda has become about Miranda rather than about self-incrimination. The right against self-incrimination exists because there the founders believed that confessions obtained after extensive interrogation without an attorney is inherently unreliable. This case is a fundamental example of the type of unreliable confession that the amendment was intended to keep out of court.

    In many other cases, police follow the letter of Miranda, but do so in a way that is designed to minimize the importance of the rights and to rely on the popular familiarity with Miranda to make it seem like a formality with no real substance. When law enforcement intentionally avoids making sure that a suspect understands their rights, that is unreasonable, and leads to the harm that Miranda was intended to remedy. The formalism that has come to characterize the application of Miranda does little to actually protect suspect’s rights. Maybe progressives should take this opportunity to see the flaw in Miranda formalism.

  • Having spent some time dwelling on this problematic case this summer, I can firmly say I agree with you, Noah, about the plain illogic of the custody formalism. I of course would suggest that logic per se has little to do with the majority’s reasoning and outcome–certain basic ideas about the appropriate balance of rights and state power in the criminal justice context is really, in my opinion, what undergirds that analysis. Wolf in sheep’s (shabby and disheveled) clothing, indeed.

    The one thing that, at least superficially, both concerns and intrigues me about your response, Noah, is your suggestion that a move towards a substantive approach to the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination might be appropriate. Without asking you to spell out every nuance of the test/standard you might announce as Justice Kaplan, what would a “substantive” approach look like?

    (BTW–I also really enjoyed your Kagan judicial politics/philosophy analysis).

    • Jon, what I was trying to express was that courts should stop looking through the lens of whether law enforcement checked all the boxes that a formalist Miranda analysis requires (e.g., was the suspect in custody, was the warning given, did the suspect express a clear statement requesting to speak with an an attorney, did the suspect voluntarily reinitiate communication, etc), and should instead get underneath Miranda and look at the evil that Miranda was intended to address, namely whether the suspect’s right against self-incrimination has been violated. What I meant by “substantive” was that the analysis should focus less on the presence or absence of the Miranda warnings and more on whether the rights listed in the warnings were actually protected in the challenged interrogation. It would be a fact-specific inquiry, and would require courts to look into the whether the suspect actually understood the rights that were presented to him, or at least whether law enforcement actually made a reasonable effort to present the rights in a clear and understandable fashion; whether the suspect actually expressed a desire not to speak or to speak to an attorney; whether any reinitiation of communication was actually voluntary and initiated by the suspect without pressure from law enforcement; and most centrally to the Fifth Amendment, whether any confession was coerced as the term is commonly understood.

      The reason a case like this can be decided as it was it that the Miranda procedures have replaced the substantive rights protected by the 5th Amendment, and I would like to see a return to substance over procedure. Though the prison officials in this case may have followed all of the procedures that Miranda requires, common sense tells us that this was a coerced confession, the exact thing the 5th Amendment was intended to prevent. I agree with Justices Thomas and Scalia to the extent that they express the view that Miranda and 5th amendment are not coextensive. I don’t believe, as Minal says in his last paragraph, that a departure from Miranda as the standard of analysis for identifying coercion would necessarily represent a narrowing of 5th Amendment protections.


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