Maybe He Just Likes Chatting With Cops


This week the Supreme Court diluted the requirement that police inform detained suspects of their rights prior to questioning, ruling that a prisoner who confessed to sexual contact with a 12-year-old boy after "between five and seven hours" of interrogation was not really "in custody" at the time. The case involved Randall Lee Fields, who was in a Michigan jail on a disorderly conduct charge when he was escorted from his cell to a conference room where he was questioned by two armed sheriff's deputies. He was never given the familiar warning about his right to remain silent, etc., required since 1966 by Miranda v. Arizona for suspects taken into custody. The Court, in a majority opinion by Samuel Alito that was joined by five other justices, focused on the fact that the deputies repeatedly told Fields he was free to leave and return to his cell. But as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the circumstances of the interrogation sent a different message (citations omitted):

Fields, serving time for disorderly conduct, was, of course, "i[n] custody," but not "for purposes of Miranda," the Court concludes. I would not train, as the Court does, on the question whether there can be custody within custody. Instead, I would ask, as Miranda put it, whether Fields was subjected to "incommunicado interrogation …in a police-dominated atmosphere," whether he was placed, against his will, in an inherently stressful situation, and whether his "freedom of action [was] curtailed in any significant way." Those should be the key questions, and to each I would answer "Yes."

As the Court acknowledges, Fields did not invite or consent to the interview. He was removed from his cell in the evening, taken to a conference room in the sheriff's quarters, and questioned by two armed deputies long into the night and early morning. He was not told at the outset that he had the right to decline to speak with the deputies. Shut in with the armed officers, Fields felt "trapped." Although told he could return to his cell if he did not want to cooperate, Fields believed the deputies "would not have allowed [him] to leave the room." And with good reason. More than once, "he told the officers…he did not want to speak with them anymore." He was given water, but not his evening medications. Yet the Court concludes that Fields was in "an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave." 

Critical to the Court's judgment is "the undisputed fact that [Fields] was told that he was free to end the questioning and to return to his cell." Never mind the facts suggesting that Fields's submission to the overnight interview was anything but voluntary. Was Fields "held for interrogation"? Brought to, and left alone with, the gun-bearing deputies, he surely was in my judgment.

The conservative rap against Miranda is that it represented policy making rather than constitutional interpretation, imposing on police departments throughout the country a specific safeguard aimed at countering the coercive circumstances that undermine a suspect's Fifth Amendment guarantee against compelled self-incrimination. But in this case the Court is ostensibly applying Miranda, not questioning or limiting it, and it seems clear that the situation Fields faced was very similar to what the Miranda Court had in mind. After all, why would Fields have submitted to seven hours of questioning in the middle of the night, while repeatedly protesting that he did not want to talk anymore, unless he believed he had no choice? As Radley Balko has noted, stressful conditions like these lead even innocent people to confess.