Oral argument: Oct. 4, 2011
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Mar. 5, 2010)
While Randall Fields was incarcerated, officers unaffiliated with the prison questioned him regarding activities unrelated to his incarceration. Fields made incriminating statements to the officers, and was convicted after these statements were admitted into evidence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted Fields' petition for habeas corpus relief, holding that the state court decision was in conflict with clearly established Supreme Court precedent forbidding the admission of statements made without the protection of Miranda warnings. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether a prisoner is "in custody," and thus entitled to Miranda protections, any time the prisoner is separated from the general prison population and questioned. Petitioning Warden Carol Howes contends that habeas should not be granted because the state court’s decision is not in conflict with any clearly established precedent of the Supreme Court. In contrast, Respondent Fields argues that there is a clearly established rule granting Miranda protection to prisoners anytime they are isolated and questioned. Howes maintains that recognizing a Supreme Court precedent requiring Miranda rights to be issued any time a prisoner is questioned will grant prisoners greater protections than those given to ordinary citizens. Fields counters that requiring officers to issue Miranda warnings is essential to protecting prisoners’ Fifth Amendment rights.
Whether this Court's clearly established precedent under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 holds that a prisoner is always "in custody" for purposes of Miranda any time that prisoner is isolated from the general prison population and questioned about conduct occurring outside the prison regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
Did the state court violate clearly established Supreme Court precedent, and thereby provide grounds for granting a petition for habeas corpus, by admitting statements Fields made without the benefit of Miranda warnings, while he was sequestered from the general prison population and questioned?
On December 23, 2001, prison officials removed Respondent Randall Fields, who was incarcerated for disorderly conduct, from his cell and brought him to a conference room. See Fields v. Howe, 617 F.3d 813, 815 (6th Cir. 2010). On the way, the officers did not inform him of their reasons for removing him from the general population or their destination. See id.
The prison officials placed Fields in a locked room with two law enforcement officers unaffiliated with the prison. See id. The officers did not handcuff or restrain Fields, and they informed him that he could leave at any time. See id. The two law enforcement officers then proceeded to question Fields about alleged sexual conduct with a minor. See id.
Fields has stated that he did not believe that he could freely leave the conference room. See Brief for Respondent, Randall Fields at 2. Fields did not ask for an attorney or ask to return to his cell during the interview; however, he did state multiple times that he no longer wanted to speak with the officers. See Fields, 617 F.3d at 815.
During the ensuing trial, Fields moved to suppress the statements made during the interrogation; the trial court denied the motion, and Fields was convicted and sentenced to ten to fifteen years in prison. See id. at 815–16.
Fields appealed the decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals arguing that the lower court violated his constitutional due process rights by admitting the "un-Mirandized" statements. See id. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. See People v. Fields, 2004 WL 979732, at *2 (Mich. App. May 6, 2004).
Fields then appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which denied his petition. See Fields, 617 F.3d at 816. Fields next filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. See Fields, 617 F.3d at 816.
The district court conditionally granted the habeas petition. See Fields, 617 F.3d at 816. Warden Carol Howes appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. See id. at 816. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the state court erred by admitting Fields' statements; the court determined that the statements were made during a custodial interrogation and were subject to the protections of Miranda. See id. at 828.
On January 24, 2011, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the state court decision was in conflict with clearly established precedent requiring Miranda warnings to be issued whenever a prisoner is separated from the general prison population and questioned about events occurring outside of the prison. See Howes v. Fields, 131 S.Ct. 1047 (2011).
Miranda Warnings in Prison
Petitioner Carol Howes, Warden of the Lakeland Correctional Facility where Fields is a prisoner, argues that there is no clearly established precedent that Miranda applies to all instances of prisoner questioning. See Brief for Petitioner, Carol Howes at 15. Rather, according to Howes, a court must examine the totality of the circumstances to determine whether an individual was in custody. See id. at 24. Howes maintains that statements are admissible without Miranda warnings if the court finds that the individual was not in custody based on the totality of the circumstances. See id. at 25.
Respondent Randall Fields argues his habeas petition should be granted because the Supreme Court has already established that prisoners are in custody, and must be advised of their Miranda rights, when they are questioned about events occurring outside of prison. See Brief for Respondent, Randall Fields at 13. Alternatively, Fields argues that habeas should be granted because the statements were made in the type of coercive environment against which Miranda was designed to protect. See id. at 18–19.
According to Petitioner Howes, a rule requiring the issuance of Miranda warnings any time a prisoner is questioned would give prisoners more rights than ordinary citizens. See Brief for Petitioner at 30. Howes contends that ordinary citizens are not entitled to Miranda warnings solely on the basis of isolation from a familiar environment. See id. In support of Howes, the United States argues that providing prisoners with Miranda warnings any time they are interviewed or questioned, even when such conversations are informal or voluntary, would unfairly treat prisoners more favorably than ordinary citizens. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the United States in Support of Petitioner at 25–26. Similarly, the United States contends that the analysis supporting the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s bright-line rule might be expanded to require Miranda warnings when prisoners are questioned about events occurring inside the prison. See id. at 26. The United States contends that this could interfere with efficient prison administration. See id.
Fields counters that such a rule will not grant prisoners greater rights than those given to ordinary citizens. See Brief for Respondent at 48. Fields contends that, even under a rule requiring Miranda protections for prisoners when they are separated from the general prison population, prisoners can still make voluntary statements which would be admissible without prior Miranda warnings. See id. at 50. Fields states that the rule would not require prison officials to give Miranda warnings when questioning prisoners about conduct occurring inside the prison. See id. at 49–50. Fields argues that prisoners are still entitled to the privileges of the Fifth Amendment, and that the use of Miranda warnings is necessary to protect those rights. See id. at 51. Fields maintains that the criminal justice system of the United States, which relies in part on confessions, is subject to abuse; he contends that the use of Miranda warnings minimizes the potential for abuses. See id. at 51.
Miranda Warnings and Prison Administration
Howes argues that a rule requiring law enforcement officers to issue Miranda warnings every time they interview a prisoner will be detrimental for society. See Reply Brief for Petitioner at 16. Howes contends that this rule would prevent confessions from being admissible without Miranda warnings, even where they are given voluntarily. See id. A number of states argue that a totality of circumstances inquiry is preferable to a rule requiring a Miranda reading for any and all questioning; this is premised on the belief that an inquiry examining all the circumstances of a prisoner's interrogation offers better protection for prisoners. See Brief of Amicus Curiae the States of Ohio, Alabama et al. in Support of Petitioner at 18.
In contrast, Fields maintains that protecting the Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination is more important than the social benefit of confessions. See Brief for Respondent at 51. Fields argues that the technological tools available today reduce the need for verbal confessions. See id. at 52. Fields further argues that the rule granting Miranda protection to prisoners is socially beneficial because it provides a clear analytical means for courts, law-enforcement officials, and prisoners to determine whether statements made during custodial interrogations are admissible. See Brief for Respondent at 24. In support of Fields, Ohio prison inmate Donovan E. Simpson argues that the goal of Miranda was to reduce inconsistencies in the application of the law governing custodial interrogations by eliminating the need for an individualized assessment of coercion in every case. See Brief of Amicus Curiae Donovan E. Simpson in Support of Respondent at 29.
Generally, in order for statements made during custodial interrogation to be admissible at trial, a law enforcement officer must first have provided Miranda warnings to the individual being questioned. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Respondent Fields argues that his habeas corpus petition should be granted because the state court’s admission of "un-Mirandized" statements is in conflict with Supreme Court precedent; Fields interprets this precedent as establishing a requirement that Miranda warnings must be administered when a prisoner is isolated and questioned about external events. See Brief for Respondent, Randall Fields at 11. In contrast, Petitioner Howes contends that there is no clearly established Supreme Court precedent requiring that Miranda warnings always be issued in a prison context. See Brief for Petitioner, Carol Howes at 24.
Standards for Granting Habeas Corpus Relief
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a habeas corpus petition should only be granted when a court’s decision is contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).
Howes argues that the Michigan Court of Appeal’s decision could not have been contrary to Supreme Court law because the Court has never established precedent determining when Miranda warnings must be issued in a prison context. See Brief for Petitioner at 14. Howes asserts that the Court has never decided whether incarceration alone constitutes custody for Miranda purposes and, in fact, has explicitly declined to do so. See id. at 18. Howes maintains that, because there is no clear precedent, the state court’s decision could not conflict with clearly established federal law. See id. at 23–24.
In contrast, Fields maintains that, even if the precedent is not codified in a single case, the existence of a general federal law may support habeas review. See Brief for Respondent at 10. Fields argues that Supreme Court law has clearly established a requirement that Miranda warnings be given prior to questioning a prisoner, who has been isolated from his everyday surroundings, about external events. See id. at 19–20.
The Extent to which Miranda Applies in the Prison Context
Both parties agree that the protections of Miranda are available within prisons. See Brief for Petitioner at 14; see Brief for Respondent at 13. However, the parties disagree about whether the Supreme Court has established a bright-line rule requiring the issuance of Miranda warnings when prisoners are isolated from the general population and questioned about outside events. See Brief for Respondent at 19–20; see Brief for Petitioner at 14. Howes argues that there is no clearly established Supreme Court law regarding Miranda’s use in the prison context. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. Howes acknowledges that the Supreme Court, in Mathis v. United States, rejected the contention that prisoners have no Miranda rights. See id. at 15. However, Howes asserts that Mathis does not uniformly require officers to issue Miranda warnings prior to questioning prisoners. See id. Howes maintains that the Court declined to specify exactly when Miranda warnings are required in prison. See id. at 15.
Fields argues that an explicit, bright-line rule pronounced by the Supreme Court is not required under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). See Brief for Respondent at 11. Fields argues that the phrase “Supreme Court law,” as it is used in this statute, doesn't necessarily mean a specific case: a court's decision need not conflict with a specific Supreme Court decision in order to provide grounds for habeas relief. See id. at 11.
Fields also maintains that Howes is reading the Sixth Circuit’s decision too broadly, ignoring all of the qualifying conditions that the court cited. See id. at 18. Fields contends that the Sixth Circuit did not hold that Fields was in custody simply because he was in prison. See id. at 16. Fields argues that the Sixth Circuit took into account all the facts surrounding the interrogation, including the fact that the questioning focused on external events and the fact that Fields was isolated. See id. at 23. Fields contends, however, that the Sixth Circuit’s decision to use a bright-line rule when a prisoner is separated from general prison conditions and questioned about external events simply codifies pre-existing Supreme Court law. See id.
Howes argues that Maryland v. Shatzer recognized open questions around Miranda’s applicability in the prison context. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. Howes maintains also that the Court in Shatzer emphasized the fact-driven nature of the Miranda custody inquiry. See id. Moreover, Howes contends, the Supreme Court has never articulated a bright-line rule for prisoners in these circumstances. See id. To the contrary, Howes argues, the Supreme Court has explicitly recognized a lack of clearly established principles; therefore, the Michigan Court of Appeal’s decision cannot possibly contradict any Supreme Court law, as would be required for habeas review under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). See id. at 19–20. Furthermore, Howes contends that no other circuit has recognized the bright-line rule adopted by the Sixth Circuit. See id. at 20.
In response, Fields argues that Supreme Court law is sufficiently developed to support the Sixth Circuit’s holding. See Brief for Respondent at 17. Fields maintains that it is irrelevant whether other circuits have used the bright-line rule because the facts in this situation are nearly identical to the ones found in Mathis, where the Court found that Miranda warnings should have been given to the defendant. See id. at 25–26.
The Custodial Analysis in Prison
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), habeas review can also be granted if a state court’s decision was based on an unreasonable determination of facts. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).
Fields argues that he was in custody for the purposes of Miranda. See Brief for Respondent at 40. Fields states that he did not consent to the interview, did not contact the officers and invite them to the prison, was removed from the jail itself, and was interrogated about a crime that occurred outside of prison; he contends that these facts distinguish his case from those in which prisoners are not deemed to be in custody. See id. at 41. Fields argues that these factors are important because they demonstrate that his freedom of movement was completely restricted, and that the environment was one in which a reasonable person would not have felt comfortable terminating the interrogation. See id. Fields maintains that these conditions normally indicate custody under Miranda, and therefore that his statements given without Miranda warnings should not have been admitted. See id. at 40–41. Fields contends that the Michigan Court of Appeal’s decision was an unreasonable determination facts and that his habeas petition should be granted. See id. at 36.
On the other hand, Howes contends that the main justification for requiring officers to give Miranda warnings before interrogations is to prevent individuals from being pressured into making self-incriminating statements due to a coercive environment. See Brief for Petitioner at 25. Howes argues that Fields was not placed in a coercive environment. See id. at 36. Howes maintains that Fields was not in custody because he admitted that he was not physically “uncomfortable” in the conference room, did not ask to go back to his cell until the end of the interview, and was repeatedly told by officers that he was free to leave the conference room, return to his cell, and end the interview at any time. See id. at 35-36. Howes argues that a reasonable person in Fields’ situation would have felt that he was at liberty to end the interrogation and leave. See id.
In contrast, Fields maintains that, even if an individual is told that he or she is free to leave, this is only one of a number of factors to examine to determine if an individual is in custody. See Brief for Respondent at 40. Fields maintains that even though he was told that he could leave, he did not believe he could terminate the interrogation and leave the room. See id. Fields argues that he was not really free to leave because he would have needed an escort back to his cell. See id. Fields maintains that the length of his interrogation and the fact that the officers were not affiliated with the prison are strong indicators that he felt coerced in this setting. See id. at 41. Fields contends that a reasonable person in this situation would not have felt free to leave the interrogation. See id. at 40.
The Supreme Court will determine whether there was a clearly established precedent requiring officers to give Miranda warnings to prisoners anytime they are removed from the prison population and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison. Respondent Fields argues that prior Supreme Court cases have established that Miranda warnings should be automatically given in these situations; therefore, the Sixth Circuit’s granting of habeas should be upheld. Fields also maintains that recognizing the existence of precedent for the application of Miranda in prisons is vital to protecting prisoners’ Fifth Amendment rights. In contrast, Howes argues that there can be no clearly established precedent because the Supreme Court has explicitly stated that the applicability of Miranda in the prison context is an open question. Howes maintains that, without a clear precedent, there is no reason to grant Fields’ habeas petition. Howes further contends that recognizing a bright-line rule for the applicability of Miranda in the prison context will provide prisoners with more expansive protection than ordinary citizens, and will hamper the ability of police to use voluntary confessions.
Edited by: Kelly Halford
Jurist, Zach Zagger: Supreme Court to Examine Inmates' Miranda Rights (Jan. 24, 2011)