Incarcerated does not mean “in custody” for Miranda per the Supreme Court

This week, in Howes v. Fields, No. 10-280 (Feb. 21, 2012), the United States Supreme Court reiterated that whether an individual is “in custody” for the purposes of Miranda rights is a fact-dependent inquiry that evaluates all features of an interrogation.  The most pertinent inquiry is whether, when looking at all the circumstances, a reasonable person would feel free to terminate the law enforcement interview and leave, even if the individual is incarcerated.

The Sixth Circuit had applied a categorical rule that individuals that were imprisoned were “in custody,” and law enforcement officers must read the prisoner Miranda rights when questioning a prisoner about other criminal activity.  The Supreme Court reversed that holding and stated the general rule still applies to interrogations made of incarcerated persons:  given “all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation,” how does the suspect gauge his freedom of movement?  Incarceration alone is not “custody” for Miranda purposes because: (1) a person who is already in prison is not as shocked as a person questioned after an arrest; (2) a prisoner will not be duped into speaking to seek a prompt release; and (3) prisoners know that the questioners lack authority to affect the duration of their existing sentence.

So, even when the suspect being questioned is already incarcerated, if it is made clear to the inmate that he is free to leave an interview, and he is not physically restrained or threatened, and there are no other indicia of coercion, courts will likely determine that the person is not “in custody” for Miranda purposes.  It is now clear that “in custody” as in “incarcerated” does not equate with “in custody” for Miranda purposes.