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.