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Argument recap: Court grapples with applicability of Miranda in questioning a prisoner.

The following argument recap is written for us by Alan Raphael, Associate Professor at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law. His preview of the argument is here.


Howes v. Fields, argued October 4, 2011, involves both the application of the Miranda rule and the provision of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) that a writ of habeas corpus is appropriate if the trial court acted contrary to a clearly established rule of law as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Fields’s conviction on several counts of sexual conduct with a minor had been affirmed by  the Michigan Court of Appeals, which upheld admission of the defendant’s self-incriminating statements made to police officers at the prison where he was serving a term for an unrelated offense. The Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of federal habeas relief on the ground that Fields was in custody when questioned and that the statements should have been suppressed because of the officers’ failure to comply with Miranda before interrogating him.

Justice Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan questioned why a prisoner forced to leave his cell and go to another building in the evening to answer questions about a crime should not be considered to be in custody. Michigan Solicitor General John J. Bursch responded that these facts should be considered in determining custody together with the officer’s assurance more than once to Fields that he could return to his cell upon request, subject to a delay involved in obtaining correctional personnel to accompany him, as well as the  fact that his request to leave after seven hours of questioning was honored.

Justice Breyer asked why a prisoner required to accompany police and not told the reason for his removal from his cell is not in custody when a person on the street treated identically would be in custody. Ginger D. Anders, an Assistant to the Solicitor General who appeared on behalf of the federal government, answered that the difference is that prisoners are subject routinely to restrictions on freedom of movement not applicable to free persons, so that a prisoner under these circumstances could feel free to leave while the ordinary person would not.

Justice Kagan questioned whether the state court opinions had failed to follow Mathis v. United States, in which the Court held that it is irrelevant to Miranda analysis whether the prisoner is being questioned about the crime leading to his imprisonment or about another crime. Anders responded that language in the state appellate opinion is unclear but that the court properly concluded that Miranda was inapplicable as a result of evaluating all the circumstances surrounding the questioning. She then criticized the Sixth Circuit for improperly creating a per se rule of custody when a prisoner is isolated and questioned about a crime occurring outside the prison.

Justice Ginsburg asked whether the facts that the questioning of Fields began in the early evening and lasted for seven hours were factors to be considered in determining custody. Anders said they were but a moment later she agreed with Chief Justice Roberts, who expressed the view that those facts were irrelevant as long as Fields was told that he was free to leave at any time.

Elizabeth L. Jacobs argued on behalf of Fields. Asked by Justice Alito what rule she wanted the Court to adopt, she responded initially that any person in prison is in custody under Miranda. She then altered her answer to require a finding of custody when an outside police officer comes to a jail or prison to talk to a prisoner about a crime occurring outside the institution. Alito questioned why Miranda should depend on the subject of the questioning or the location of the crime. Jacobs replied that custody should be found for prison questioning about any crime but not questioning at the crime scene at a prison or to volunteered statements.

Justice Kagan asked about the basis for Jacobs’s focus on isolation of the prisoner, to which the attorney indicated that Miranda was concerned with an inherently compulsive atmosphere which is produced by isolating the person being interrogated. Justice Ginsburg and Chief Justice Roberts asserted that Mathis never discussed whether the prisoner was in custody but instead held that Miranda was applicable to questioning about a crime other than the one the inmate was incarcerated for.  Jacobs responded that a finding that Mathis was in custody when questioned was implicit in or an extension of the Court’s decision in his case. Roberts then asked how am implied or extended holding could meet the  AEDPA requirement that a rule of law be clearly established by Supreme Court precedent for it to be a basis for granting habeas relief. Jacobs answered that the decision in Mathis created the rule she was asking the Court to follow.

Justice Kennedy pointed out that Maryland v. Shatzer indicated that the Court had never decided whether prisoners are in custody for Miranda purposes. Jacobs stated that Mathis had decided that a prisoner is in custody when questioned by police officers from outside the institution, but that the statement in Shatzer applies only to questioning by officers at the correctional institution itself.

To a question by Justice Kagan, Jacobs agreed that the Mathis Court assumed custody existed but did not explain the basis of that assumption, which no party to the case had questioned. Jacobs relied on a statement in Mathis that the questioning occurred in a cell as showing that the prisoner was isolated and in custody. When pressed by the Chief Justice to cite to the specific language in the decision on this point, Jacobs was unable to do so but insisted that the opinion did in fact contain such language.

It is always hard and often foolhardy to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case from the Justices’ questions. Four Justices asked why the totality of the circumstances surrounding the questioning of Fields should not demonstrate that he was in custody and compliance with Miranda was required. Fields does face two hurdles in his argument, as pointed out by five of the Justices. First is that he asks the Court to create a per se rule to determine custody, which the Court has never done. Second is that the case arises in a habeas petition, which further requires a showing that the rule of law he seeks was clearly established by existing Supreme Court precedent,; however, Jacobs – his attorney – acknowledges that the rule she seeks is not explicit in Mathis but was either implicit or requires an extension of Mathis.

Recommended Citation: Alan Raphael, Argument recap: Court grapples with applicability of Miranda in questioning a prisoner., SCOTUSblog (Oct. 6, 2011, 12:41 PM),