Friday, February 24, 2012

More Frequent Fliers at the Court. New Supreme Court Decision Continues Trend of Taking Criminal History of Suspects into Account in Miranda Cases.

In 2011, I published an article in the Seton Hall Circuit Review on the Supreme Court’s recent Miranda decisions:  Frequent Fliers at the Court, 7 Seton Hall Circuit Review 303 (2011).

In that article, I reviewed four Supreme Court cases interpreting Miranda that featured suspects with significant prior interaction with law enforcement and the criminal justice system:  Montejo v. Louisiana, Florida v.Powell, Maryland v. Shatzer and Berghuis v. Thompkins.  I observed that “while the original Miranda decision held that the atmosphere of a custodial interrogation generates ―inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual's will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely, these later decisions shift the focus from the atmosphere to whether the individual suspects were actually compelled to make incriminating statements.” 

The four decisions all concerned the waiver of Miranda rights.  The article examined the increased consideration of the criminal background of suspects, whether implicit or explicit, by the Supreme Court and lower courts in determining whether a Miranda waiver is made in a knowing, intelligent and voluntary manner. I concluded:  “By implicitly – and, someday, probably, explicitly – taking the criminal experience of the suspect into account along with the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, the Court may be engaging in a more realistic review into whether a waiver and statement were uncoerced.”

The Supreme Court decided another Miranda case involving a frequent flier recently:  Howes v. Fields  In Howes, the issue was not a waiver of Miranda rights, but whether the suspect was in “custody” and therefore was entitled to receive Miranda warnings prior to an interview.  The suspect in Howes was serving a sentence in jail (for disorderly conduct!) when he was escorted to a conference room and interviewed about an alleged sexual offense.  He was told that he was free to leave; he subsequently confessed to the crime. 
The Supreme Court concluded that, despite the fact that he was incarcerated, the defendant was not in custody for Miranda purposes.  This is because, when examining the totality of the circumstances, the Court believed that incarcerated persons “live” in prison and can return to the daily prison life. 

Later, I will more closely examine the entire opinion.  But what caught my eye initially was the Court’s willingness to take an incarcerated defendant’s familiarity with the criminal justice system into account in the analysis of whether the defendant in in custody ofr Miranda purposes.  The Court noted that “a prisoner, unlike a person who has not been sentenced to a term of incarceration, is unlikely to be lured into speaking by a longing for prompt release.”  The Court also noted that a prisoner “knows that the law enforcement officers who question him probably lack the authority to affect the duration of the sentence.” 

The Howe decision, thus, appears to be consistent with the long-term approach of the Supreme Court in taking the subjective knowledge and experience of suspects into account in deciding Miranda cases.  Key among the subjective knowledge and experience of suspects is a familiarity and experience with the criminal justice system.

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