Thompson v. Keohane, Warden, et al. (94-6615), 516 U.S. 99 (1996)..
[ Thomas ]
[ Ginsburg ]
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No. 94-6615


on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

[November 29, 1995]

Justice Thomas , with whom The Chief Justice joins, To determine whether a person is "in custody" under Miranda, "a court must examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, but `the ultimate inquiry is simply whether there [was] a "formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement" of the degree associated with a formal arrest.' " Stansbury v. California, 511 U. S. ___, ___ (1994) (slip op., at 4) (quoting California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1125 (1983) (per curiam), quoting in turn Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 495 (1977) (per curiam)). " [T]he only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable man in the suspect's shoes would have understood his situation. " 511 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 6) (quoting Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 442 (1984)).

I agree with the majority that a legal standard must be applied by a state trial judge in making the Miranda custody inquiry. In light of our more recent decisions applying §2254(d), however, I do not agree that the standards articulated in Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293 (1963), overruled in part by Keeney v. Tamayo Reyes, 504 U.S. 1, 5 (1992), for distinguishing factual issues from mixed questions of law and fact, dictate a result either way in this case. See, e.g., Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 429 (1985) (juror bias determination is a question of fact, even though "[t]he trial judge is of course applying some kind of legal standard to what he sees and hears"); Patton v. Yount, 467 U.S. 1025, 1037, n. 12 (1984) (juror bias is a question of fact although "[t]here are, of course, factual and legal questions to be considered in deciding whether a juror is qualified"). Because the Miranda custody issue "falls somewhere between a pristine legal standard and a simple historical fact," we must decide, "as a matter of the sound administration of justice, [which] judicial actor is better positioned . . . to decide the issue in question." Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 114 (1985).

The state trial judge is, in my estimation, the best positioned judicial actor to decide the relatively straightforward and fact laden question of Miranda custody. See California v. Beheler, supra, at 1128 (Stevens, J., dissenting) (state "courts are far better equipped than we are to assess the police practices that are highly relevant to the determination whether particular circumstances amount to custodial interrogation"). In making the custody determination, the state trial judge must consider a complex of diverse and case specific factors in an effort to gain an overall sense of the defendant's situation at the time of the interrogation. These factors include, at a minimum, the location, timing, and length of the interview, the nature and tone of the questioning, whether the defendant came to the place of questioning voluntarily, the use of physical contact or physical restraint, and the demeanor of all of the key players, both during the interview and in any proceedings held in court. In assessing all of these facts, the state trial judge will often take live testimony, consider documentary evidence, and listen to audio tapes or watch videotapes of the interrogation. Assessments of credibility and demeanor are crucial to the ultimate determination, for the trial judge will often have to weigh conflicting accounts of what transpired. The trial judge is also likely to draw inferences, which are similarly entitled to deference, from "physical or documentary evidence or . . . other facts." Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 574 (1985). The Miranda custody inquiry is thus often a matter of "shades and degrees," Withrow v. Williams, 507 U. S. ___, ___ (1993) (O'Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (slip op., at 16), that requires the state trial judge to make any number of " `fact intensive, close calls.' " Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384, 404 (1990) (citation omitted).

The majority is quite right that the test contains an objective component--how a " reasonable man in the suspect's shoes would have understood his situation, " Stansbury v. California, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 6)--but this alone cannot be dispositive of whether the determination should be reviewed deferentially. See, e.g., Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., supra, at 402 (Rule 11 and negligence determinations, both of which involve objective tests, are subject to deferential review). "[T]he line between pure facts . . . and . . . the application to them of a legal standard that is as non technical--as commonsensical--as reasonableness is a faint one." United States v. Humphrey, 34 F. 3d 551, 559 (CA7 1994) (Posner, C. J., concurring). It distorts reality to say that all of the subtle, fact bound assessments that go into determining what it was like to be "in the suspect's shoes" simply go out the window when it comes time for the "ultimate inquiry," ante, at 13, of how a reasonable person would have assessed the situation. "The state trial court [is] in the unique position, after observing [the defendant] and listening to the evidence presented at trial, to determine whether a reasonable person in [defendant's] position would have felt free to leave the police station." Purvis v. Dugger, 932 F. 2d 1413, 1419 (CA11 1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 940 (1992). It is only in light of these case specific determinations that the reasonable person test can be meaningfully applied. See Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., supra, at 402 ("Familiar with the issues and litigants, the [trial] court is better situated than the court of appeals to marshal the pertinent facts and apply the fact dependent legal standard").

For these reasons, I have no doubt that the state trier of fact is best situated to put himself in the suspect's shoes, and consequently is in a better position to determine what it would have been like for a reasonable man to be in the suspect's shoes. Federal habeas courts, often reviewing the cold record as much as a decade after the initial determination, are in an inferior position to make this assessment. Though some of the state court's factual determinations may, perhaps, be reflected on the record, many of the case specific assessments that comprise the state trial judge's ultimate determination are subtle, difficult to reduce to writing, and unlikely to be preserved in any meaningful way for review on appeal. "State courts are fully qualified to identify constitutional error and evaluate its prejudicial effect." Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. ___, ___ (1993) (slip op., at 15). "Absent indication to the contrary, state courts should be presumed to have applied federal law as faithfully as federal courts." Withrow v. Williams, supra, at ___ (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (slip op., at 9-10). We insult our colleagues in the States when we imply, as we do today, that state judges are not sufficiently competent and reliable to make a decision as straightforward as whether a person was in custody for purposes of Miranda. See 507 U. S., at ___ (O'Connor, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (slip op., at 19) ("We can depend on law enforcement officials to administer [Miranda] warnings in the first instance and the state courts to provide a remedy when law enforcement officers err"). [n.1]

I also see no reason to remand this case to the Ninth Circuit for further analysis. There is no dispute that Thompson came to the police station voluntarily. There is no dispute that he was repeatedly told he could leave the police station at any time. And it is also clear that he left the police station freely at the end of the interrogation. In California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121 (1983) (per curiam), we held that a person is not in custody if-the suspect is not placed under arrest, voluntarily comes to the police station, and is allowed to leave unhindered by police after a brief interview." Ibid. And in Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492 (1977) (per curiam), we found it "clear" that the defendant was not in Miranda custody where he "came voluntarily to the police station, . . . was immediately informed that he was not under arrest," and "[a]t the close of a 1/2-hour interview . . . did in fact leave the police station without hindrance." Id., at 495; see also ibid. ("Nor is the requirement of warnings to be imposed simply because the questioning takes place in the station house, or because the questioned person is one whom the police suspect"). Because Thompson cannot establish a Miranda violation even under de novo review, I would resolve that question now, and avoid putting the State of Alaska to the uncertainty and expense of defending for the sixth time in nine years an eminently reasonable judgment secured against a confessed murderer. [n.2]

I respectfully dissent.


1 The majority believes that federal oversight of state court custody judgments is necessary to "advanc[e] uniform outcomes," and when that cannot be achieved, to "reduce the area of uncertainty." Ante, at 14, n. 13. While uniformity of outcome is a virtue worth pursuing generally, we determined in a line of cases beginning with Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989) (plurality opinion), that on habeas, uniformity must give way to concerns of comity and finality. See id., at 310 ("The `costs imposed upon the State[s] by retroactive application of new rules of constitutional law on habeas corpus . . . generally far outweigh the benefits of this application' ") (quoting Solem v. Stumes, 465 U.S. 638, 654 (1984) (Powell, J., concurring in the judgment)). Federal habeas review is not the time for fine tuning constitutional rules of criminal procedure at the expense of valid state convictions based on reasonable applications of then existing law. See Butler v. McKellar, 494 U.S. 407, 414 (1990) ("The `new rule' principle . . . validates reasonable, good faith interpretations of existing precedents made by state courts").

2 To the extent Thompson's claim has any merit at all, it seems certain that relief is barred by our decision in Teague v. Lane, supra, at 301, 310 (plurality opinion), and its progeny. "The interests in finality, predictability, and comity underlying our new rule jurisprudence may be undermined to an equal degree by the invocation of a rule that was not dictated by precedent as by the application of an old rule in a manner that was not dictated by precedent." Stringer v. Black, 503 U.S. 222, 228 (1992). In this case, it is clear that "granting the relief sought would create a new rule because the prior decision is applied in a novel setting, thereby extending the precedent." Ibid. In light of Beheler and Mathiason, the State's judgment was, at the very least, reasonable. And "Teague insulates on habeas review the state courts' ` "reasonable, good faith interpretations of existing precedents." ' " Wright v. West, 505 U.S. 277, 292, n. 8 (1992) (opinion of Thomas, J.) (quoting Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U.S. 227, 234 (1990), quoting in turn Butler v. McKellar, supra, at 414).