Custodial Interrogation

Custodial Interrogation

Questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person is taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his or her freedom in any significant way, thus requiring that the person be advised of his or her applicable constitutional rights.

In the landmark decision miranda v. arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court set standards for law enforcement officers to follow when attempting to interrogate suspects whom they hold in custody. Suspects who are subject to custodial interrogation must be warned that they have the right to remain silent; that any statements that they make may be used as evidence against them; that they have the right to an attorney; and that if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them prior to any questioning, if they so desire. Under Miranda, unless those warnings are given, no evidence obtained during the interrogation may be used against the accused.

Since Miranda was decided, state and federal courts have struggled with a number of issues with regard to its application, including: when a suspect is deemed to be in custody and thus entitled to the warnings required by Miranda; and when a suspect will be deemed to have waived the right to have an attorney present during questioning. Some recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have attempted to answer these difficult questions.

In Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 114 S. Ct. 1526, 128 L. Ed. 2d 293 (1994), the Court considered whether a police officer's subjective and undisclosed opinion concerning whether a person who had been questioned had been a suspect was relevant in determining whether that person had been in custody and thus entitled to the Miranda warnings. In 1982, Robert Stansbury was convicted of first-degree murder, rape, Kidnapping, and a lewd act on a child under the age of 14. The morning after ten-year-old Robyn Jackson had disappeared from a Baldwin Park, California, playground, a witness in Pasadena, California, had observed a large man leaving a turquoise car and throwing something into a nearby flood-control channel. The witness called the police, who discovered Jackson's body in the channel. She had been raped, strangled, and struck on the head with a blunt instrument. The police later learned that Jackson had talked to two ice-cream truck drivers, one of whom was Stansbury, shortly before she disappeared. Officers went to Stansbury's home and asked Stansbury to go to the police station to answer some questions concerning their investigation into Jackson's murder. Stansbury agreed and accepted a ride to the station in a police car.

At the police station, Stansbury was questioned about his whereabouts and activities on the day Jackson's body was discovered. The police did not read him the Miranda warnings at the time. Stansbury told the police that he had talked to the girl, that he had returned to his trailer a few hours later, and that he had left around midnight in his roommate's turquoise car. The car matched the description given by the witness. Stansbury also admitted that he previously had been convicted of rape, kidnapping, and Child Molestation. The detective inter-viewing Stansbury then terminated the conversation and read Stansbury the Miranda warnings. Stansbury was later charged with first-degree murder and other crimes.

At a Pretrial Conference, Stansbury moved to suppress all of the statements that he had made at the station, as well as the evidence that had been discovered as a result of those statements. The trial court denied his motion, ruling that Stansbury had not been in custody—and thus that he had not been entitled to the Miranda warnings—until he had mentioned the turquoise car. Before that point in the interview, the court reasoned, Stansbury had not been considered a suspect. Based on that conclusion, the trial court permitted introduction of the statements that Stansbury had made before he had mentioned the car. Stansbury was convicted on all charges and was sentenced to death for first-degree murder.

On appeal, the California Supreme Court affirmed Stansbury's conviction, rejecting the "in-custody" claim that he had raised in the trial court. The state supreme court, applying an in-custody legal standard based on whether the investigation has focused on the subject, agreed with the trial court's conclusion that suspicion had focused on Stansbury only after he mentioned driving the turquoise car on the night of the crime. Therefore, the court held, Stansbury had not been subject to custodial interrogation before that time, and in turn Miranda warnings had not been required, and his statements were admissible.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case. In a per curiam decision (a brief, unanimous, and unsigned opinion), the Court held that "an officer's subjective and undisclosed view concerning whether the person being interrogated is a suspect is irrelevant to the assessment [of] whether the person is in custody." Instead, according to the Court, the key inquiry should be whether the individual had been placed under formal arrest, or whether the restraint placed on the individual's freedom of movement rose to the level of a formal arrest. The Court further noted that the "initial determination of custody depends on the objective circumstances of the interrogation, not on the subjective views harbored by either the interrogation officers or the person being questioned." So long as an officer's subjective view that an individual being questioned is a suspect is not disclosed to the individual, the officer's view has no bearing on the in-custody issue. If the officer's knowledge or beliefs are communicated to the individual being questioned, the Court stated, that knowledge or those beliefs are relevant only to the extent that the individual "would gauge the breadth of his or her 'freedom of action.'" But a statement from the officer that the individual is the prime suspect, in and of itself, is not "dispositive of the custody issue."

In Stansbury, the California Supreme Court had not analyzed the in-custody issue based on these principles. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether the objective facts surrounding Stansbury's interrogation supported the trial court's original conclusion that Stansbury had not been in custody before he mentioned the turquoise car.

The high court tackled another difficult Miranda issue in Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 114 S. Ct. 2350, 129 L. Ed. 2d (1994), when it considered the circumstances under which a suspect who was subject to custodial interrogation has validly waived the right to have an attorney present during questioning. In an earlier decision, Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 101 S. Ct. 1880, 68 L. Ed. 2d 378 (1981), the Court had held that such a waiver must be "knowing and intelligent." Furthermore, the Court had made clear in Edwards that police officers must immediately stop questioning a suspect who clearly asserts the right to have legal counsel present during the interrogation.

Edwards applied only when a suspect clearly asserted the right to have counsel present; it did not provide guidance to officers when a suspect made an ambiguous or equivocal request for counsel. Addressing that situation, some jurisdictions had held that any mention of counsel, no matter how ambiguous, required that questioning cease. Other courts had attempted to define a threshold standard of clarity, under which comments that fell below the required clarity did not invoke the Right to Counsel. Still other jurisdictions had ruled that questioning must cease upon any mention of counsel, but officers were permitted to ask further, narrow questions to clarify whether the suspect desired an attorney. In Davis, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue, holding that officers are not required to cease questioning if a suspect makes an ambiguous request for counsel. Questioning may continue until the suspect makes an "unambiguous" request for an attorney. Furthermore, the Court held, police officers have no duty to seek clarification of an ambiguous request.

The case began when Robert Davis, a member of the U.S. Navy, became a suspect in the murder of another sailor at the Charleston, South Carolina, naval base. Davis was interviewed by the authorities and informed of his Miranda rights. He waived, orally and in writing, his right to remain silent and his right to counsel. But after talking with agents for 90 minutes, he stated, "Maybe I should talk to a lawyer." One of the agents asked Davis whether he wanted an attorney, or whether he was just making a comment. Davis replied, "No, I'm not asking for a lawyer." After a short break, the agents reminded him of his right to remain silent and then resumed the questioning. An hour later, Davis said, "I think I want a lawyer before I say anything else." The agents then stopped the interview.

At his general Court-Martial, Davis maintained that the statements made during the interview after his ambiguous statement concerning the need to talk with a lawyer should not be admitted. The court ruled that the ambiguous statement had not been in the form of a request for an attorney, and thus the statements made after it were admissible. Davis was found guilty of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction was affirmed by the military appellate court.

The U.S. Supreme Court also affirmed the conviction. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that none of the Court's previous decisions addressing Miranda issues required that questioning of a suspect be terminated if the suspect makes an ambiguous or equivocal request for counsel. To gain Miranda protection, she maintained, a suspect must "unambiguously request counsel," and the request must "articulate [the suspect's] desire to have counsel present sufficiently clearly that a reasonable police officer in the circumstances would understand the statement to be a request for an attorney." She further stated that requiring questioning to stop when a suspect makes ambiguous references to requesting an attorney would transform the Miranda protections into "wholly irrational obstacles to legitimate police investigative activity." Police officers, she maintained, would be forced to end questioning even if the suspect does not want an attorney, thus hampering effective law enforcement. Permitting a mere reference to an attorney to end an interrogation would require police officers to "make difficult judgment calls whether the suspect in fact wants a lawyer even though he hasn't said so, with the threat of suppression if they guess wrong."

In a separate opinion, Justice david h. souter, joined by Justices harry a. blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, concurred in the judgment affirming Davis's conviction. In Souter's view, officers could constitutionally pose questions to clarify a suspect's ambiguous reference for counsel, as was done in Davis. Souter believed that the statements given by Davis, after the counsel issue was clarified, indicated that Davis did not want an attorney. Nevertheless, Souter disagreed with the Court's ruling that the agents could entirely disregard Davis's references to wanting one. He argued that, like the agents in Davis, the Court should adopt a rule barring officers from further questioning until they have determined whether a suspect's ambiguous statement was meant as a request for an attorney. According to Souter, a "timid or verbally inept subject" might not understand what is required in order for him or her to stop the interrogation and to consult with an attorney. If the suspect understands that a request has been ignored, he or she may not object further and may see "confession (true or not) as the only way to end [the] interrogation."

The Future of Miranda

Miranda and its progeny have long served as a whipping post for politicians, legal commentators, and others who perceive the decision as "coddling criminals." They argue that the Miranda warnings impede police officers from efficiently and effectively doing their jobs by adding additional layers of unnecessary procedure to the law enforcement process. Miranda critics also maintain that the police are punished, and that society is harmed, when defendants are set free, because key evidence is suppressed after being obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment's prohibition against un-Mirandized confessions. Moreover, Miranda critics contend that criminal suspects seldom fully understand the meaning or importance of the rights recited to them. Finally, critics cite studies indicating that the Miranda decision has had little effect in reducing the number of confessions and requests for lawyers made by suspects in custody.

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit fueled long-standing speculation that Miranda would be overruled when it held that the admissibility of confessions in federal court is governed not by Miranda, but by a federal statute enacted two years after Miranda. The statute, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3501, provides that a confession is admissible if voluntarily given, with the voluntariness of each confession being evaluated by the "totality of the circumstances" on a cases-by-case basis, without any requirement that the defendant be Mirandized. Congress enacted the statute to overturn Miranda, the Fourth Circuit wrote, and Congress had the authority to do so pursuant to its authority to overrule judicially created rules of evidence that are not mandated by the Constitution. United States v. Dickerson, 166 F. 3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999).

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. In a 7-2 opinion authored by Chief Justice william rehnquist, the Court wrote that whether or not it agreed with Miranda, the principles of Stare Decisis weigh heavily against overruling it then. While the Court has overruled other precedents when subsequent cases have under-mined their doctrinal underpinnings, that has not happened to the Miranda decision, which the Court said "has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture." Although a few guilty defendants may sometimes go free as the result of the application of the Miranda rule, the Court observed, experience shows that the totality-of-the-circumstances test set forth in Section 3501 is more difficult than Miranda for law enforcement officers and courts to apply in a consistent manner. Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 147 L. Ed. 2d 405 (2000).

The Court said that a contrary conclusion is not required by the fact that it has subsequently made exceptions to the Miranda rule. No constitutional rule is immutable, much less immune from the sort of refinements Miranda has undergone to adapt to the needs and realities of law enforcement. Moreover, the Court emphasized, these exceptions have reduced some of the law enforcement inefficiencies that Miranda critics were predicting would undermine the efficiency of criminal investigations, as the Miranda warnings are now often provided in a rote and perfunctory manner during arrest and custodial interrogation. "If anything," Rehnquist wrote, "subsequent cases have reduced the impact of the Miranda rule on legitimate law enforcement while reaffirming the decision's core ruling that unwarned statements may not be used as evidence in the prosecution's case in chief."

Dickerson surprised many observers, not only because the Court declined to overrule Miranda, but also because Chief Justice William Rehnquist authored the opinion upholding Miranda, even suggesting that Miranda had become so "embedded" in the nation's Jurisprudence as to be unlikely to be over-turned in the foreseeable future. Most observers consider Rehnquist to be one of the Court's more conservative members. His opinions are frequently joined by fellow conservatives, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both of whom dissented in Dickerson. On any number of other issues, civil libertarians have assailed the chief justice for what they regard as his narrow reading of the Bill of Rights. Dickerson both tempered that criticism and quieted speculation about the future of Miranda.

Further readings

Clymer, Steven D. 2002. "Are Police Free to Disregard Miranda?" Yale Law Journal 112 (December).

Kenney, Jack. 1998. "Custodial Interrogation, Invocation of Right to Counsel." Res Gestae 42 (November–December).

Pearce, Gene A. 2001. "Constitutional Law—Criminal Law: The United States Supreme Court Affirms the Use of Miranda Rights by Police to Determine the Admissibility of Statements Made During Custodial Interrogation." North Dakota Law Review 77 (winter).


Criminal Procedure; Privilege Against Self-Incrimination; Right to Counsel; Self-Incrimination.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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