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Diluting Miranda

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The landmark criminal procedure decisions of the Warren Court have generally not been overruled, but this is somewhat misleading; in many cases, the precedents formally remain standing, but have been interpreted in ways that give them much less bite.

With Miranda v. Arizona, the dilution process continued yesterday. It’s rarely a good sign when you see Alito’s name on a majority opinion in a civil liberties case, and Howes v. Fields is no exception. Yesterday’s ruling concerned the admissibility of a confession made by a prisoner who was questioned by two sherrif’s deputies for more than five hours and while being held in prison. The prisoner did not have the assistance of counsel, was not given the Miranda warnings, and said more than once that he did not want to answer further questions. Seems a pretty clear violation of Miranda, right? Well, if so, you’re not Samuel Alito, whose opinion held that Fields was not actually “in custody” at the time and therefore not subject to the requirements of Miranda. While Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion agreed that the Court had not previously established that this kind of context constituted custody, as she points out the failure of the Court to establish this given the opportunity involves ignoring the standards set forth in Miranda:

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. Ibid. He was not told at the outset that he had the right to decline to speak with the deputies. Ibid. 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.

It’s classic Roberts Court “minimalism,” in other words. The Court doesn’t overrule Miranda, but it does invent some irrelevant reasons not to apply it in particular context.

Ginsburg dissented for Breyer and Sotomayor but not Kagan, who joined the Alito’s opinion in full. As this blog may have mentioned on one or two occasions, Kagan isn’t awful but certainly represents a missed opportunity. “To the right of Breyer on a Fifth Amendment case” is not what you’re looking for given an unusually large Senate majority to work with.

…Glenn beat me to the point on Kagan.

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