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Habeas – Review, Generally; Miranda – Custody: Prisoner

Howes v. Randall Lee Fields, USSC No. 10-680, 2/21/12, reversing 617 F.3d 813 (6th Cir 2010); arguably abrogating, State v. Tonnie D. Armstrong, 223 Wis.2d 331, 588 N.W.2d 606 (1999)

Habeas – Review, Generally 

Under AEDPA, a federal court may grant a state prisoner’s application for a writ of habeas corpus if the state-court adjudication pursuant to which the prisoner is held “resulted 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.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). In this context, “clearly established law” signifies “the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of this Court’s decisions.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U. S. 362, 412 (2000).

Miranda – Custody: Prisoner 

No “clearly established” Supreme Court precedent creates a rule establishing that a prisoner is categorically in custody for Miranda purposes if taken aside and questioned by law enforcement officials about events occurring outside the prison. Therefore, Fields’ status as an inmate in custody for one offense did not in and of itself entitle him to Miranda warnings when questioned about a different crime.

Not only does the categorical rule applied below go well beyond anything that is clearly established in our prior decisions, it is simply wrong. The three elements of that rule—(1) imprisonment, (2) questioning in private, and (3) questioning about events in the outside world—are not necessarily enough to create a custodial situation for Miranda purposes.

In short, standard conditions of confinement and associated restrictions on freedom will not necessarily implicate the same interests that the Court sought to protect when it afforded special safeguards to persons subjected to custodial interrogation. Thus, service of a term of imprisonment, without more, is not enough to constitute Miranda custody.

No categorical rule: Fields can’t win just because he was a prisoner. He can still prevail if he can persuade the Court that his 5-hour or longer interrogation by armed deputies who denied him the opportunity to take his daily medicine placed him in “Miranda custody” under the totality of the circumstances. But before taking up that discussion, let’s pause to pay our respects to the Armstrong decision:

¶ 36. Today, we reaffirm our decision in Schimmel and hold that a person who is incarcerated is per se in custody for purposes of Miranda.[28]See also State v. Hockings, 86 Wis. 2d 709, 720 & n.5, 273 N.W.2d 339 (1979). Under Mathis and Schimmel, the reason that a person was incarcerated is irrelevant to a determination of whether he or she was in custody. The State’s assertion that custody only occurs if there is an increase in custodial status commensurate with the interrogation simply misses the point. Indeed, we can think of no situation in which a defendant is more clearly in custody, as envisioned by the Miranda Court, than when the defendant is confined in a prison or jail. Accordingly, we hold that Armstrong was in custody when he made all of the statements at issue in this case, because he was an inmate of the Racine County Jail at the time.

Armtrong and Schimmel each rely on Mathis. The Court today explicitly rejects that premise: “Mathis did not hold that imprisonment, in and of itself, is enough to constitute Miranda custody.” This doesn’t leave the Armstrong holding in particularly good shape. Back, now, to the particulars of Fields’ interrogation. Alas, he fares no better than he did under categorical analysis.

The record in this case reveals that respondent was not taken into custody for purposes of Miranda. To be sure, respondent did not invite the interview or consent to it in advance, and he was not advised that he was free to decline to speak with the deputies. The following facts also lend some support to respondent’s argument that Miranda’s custody requirement was met: The interview lasted for between five and seven hours in the evening and continued well past the hour when respondent generally went to bed; the deputies who questioned respondent were armed; and one of the deputies, according to respondent, “[u]sed a very sharp tone,” App. to Pet. for Cert. 76a, and, on one occasion, profanity, see id., at 77a.

These circumstances, however, were offset by others. Most important, respondent was told at the outset of the interrogation, and was reminded again thereafter, that he could leave and go back to his cell whenever he wanted. See id., at 89a–90a (“I was told I could get up and leave whenever I wanted”); id., at 70a–71a. Moreover, respondent was not physically restrained or threatened and was interviewed in a well-lit, average-sized conference room, where he was “not uncomfortable.” Id., at 90a; see id., at 71a, 88a–89a. He was offered food and water, and the door to the conference room was sometimes left open. See id., at 70a, 74a. “All of these objective facts are consistent with an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave.” Yarborough, supra, at 664–665.

Because he was in prison, respondent was not free to leave the conference room by himself and to make his own way through the facility to his cell. Instead, he was escorted to the conference room and, when he ultimately decided to end the interview, he had to wait about 20 minutes for a corrections officer to arrive and escort him to his cell. But he would have been subject to this same restraint even if he had been taken to the conference room for some reason other than police questioning; under no circumstances could he have reasonably expected to be able to roam free.6 And while respondent testified that he “was told . . . if I did not want to cooperate, I needed to go back to my cell,” these words did not coerce cooperation by threatening harsher conditions. App. to Pet. for Cert. 71a; see id., at 89a (“I was told, if I didn’t want to cooperate, I could leave”). Returning to his cell would merely have returned him to his usual environment. See Shatzer, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 14) (“Interrogated suspects who have previously been convicted of crime live in prison. When they are released back into the general prison population, they return to their accustomed surroundings and daily routine—they regain the degree of control they had over their lives prior to the interrogation”).

Taking into account all of the circumstances of the questioning—including especially the undisputed fact that respondent was told that he was free to end the questioning and to return to his cell—we hold that respondent was not in custody within the meaning of Miranda.

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