The Supposed Strength of Hopelessness: The Supreme Court Further Undermines Miranda in Howes v. Fields

By George M. Dery III

Volume 40.1

* Professor, California State University Fullerton, Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice; Former Deputy District Attorney, Los Angeles, California; J.D., 1987, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, California; B.A., 1983, University of California Los Angeles.

Abstract

This Article analyzes Howes v. Fields, in which the Supreme Court ruled that imprisonment alone was not enough to constitute Miranda custody.  Fields provided three grounds to distinguish prisoners from mere suspects: (1) inmates serving in prison did not suffer the shock that often accompanied arrest, (2) prisoners were unlikely to be lured into speaking by any longing for a prompt release, and (3) inmates were aware that police probably lacked the authority to shorten their current prison term.  This article asserts that these rationales create their own concerns.  Fields’s consideration of the shock of arrest opened Miranda up to subjective inquiries about inmates’ emotional states, a subject prohibited as beyond Miranda’s objective analysis.  By arguing that inmates were stronger for understanding that prompt release was beyond their hopes, Fields turned Miranda on its head by deeming hopelessness an asset.  Finally, focusing on law enforcement’s power to shorten the sentence that a prisoner was currently serving blinded the Court to an inmate’s broader liberty interests.  This article also aims to analyze the potential impact that possible confusion about these issues might have on police and courts.

Introduction

Few would willingly choose to undergo the ordeal of custodial interrogation, a situation so dire that the Court itself has deemed it “destructive of human dignity.”[1]  Police have designed custodial interrogation to create an atmosphere of police domination where a person, held incommunicado, will be less “keenly aware of his rights.”[2]  However awful, most would choose this fate over the prospect of serving time behind bars, an environment so hostile that it is fraught with potential violence.[3]  The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has decided that prison life is not so bad. It has even determined that release back into the general prison population can offer a “break” from custodial interrogation.[4]  Now, in Howes v. Fields, the Court has explicitly determined that “imprisonment, without more, is not enough to constitute Miranda custody.”[5]

To support this conclusion, Fields offered “three strong grounds” which aimed to distinguish prisoners from suspects undergoing custodial interrogation.[6]  Fields asserted that inmates serving in prison did not suffer the shock that often accompanied arrest, were unlikely to be lured into speaking by a “longing for prompt release,” and were aware that the police probably lacked the authority to shorten their current prison term.[7]  The Court believed these three grounds explained a prisoner’s superior position to that of a mere suspect speaking to police.[8]  Yet Fields’s rationales create their own concerns.  Fields’s consideration of the shock of arrest could open Miranda up to subjective inquiries about inmates’ emotional states, a subject the Court has previously prohibited as beyond Miranda’s objective analysis.[9]  By urging that inmates were stronger for understanding that prompt release was beyond their hopes,[10]  Fields turned Miranda on its head by deeming hopelessness an asset.[11]  Moreover, focusing on law enforcement’s power to shorten the sentence a prisoner was currently serving blinkered the Court’s view of an inmate’s other liberty interests.[12]  Finally, in an attempt to counter a contention advanced by the Court of Appeals that questioning prisoners in private might implicate Miranda, Fields painted a stark picture of the physical dangers involved in prison life.[13]  The Court’s unflinching assessment of the atmosphere created by those who reside in prison undermined its own conclusions in previous case law.[14]

In Part II, this Article reviews the evolving definition of Miranda custody to establish background for further analysis. Part III critically examines Fields’s ruling and reasoning, while Part IV considers the implications of this case on Miranda doctrine.


[1].Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 457 (1966).  Miranda sought to preserve a person’s Fifth Amendment rights while he or she was being subjected to custodial interrogation.  The Fifth Amendment provides in part: “No person shall . . . be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself . . . .”  U.S. Const. amend. V.

[2].Miranda, 384 U.S. at 445, 449.

[3].Howes v. Fields, 132 S. Ct. 1181, 1191–92 (2012).

[4].See infra notes 112–19 and accompanying text.  In Maryland v. Shatzer, the Court opined, “[W]e think lawful imprisonment imposed upon conviction of a crime does not create the coercive pressures identified in Miranda.”  Maryland v. Shatzer, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 1224 (2010).  The Court concluded, “The ‘inherently compelling pressures’ of custodial interrogation ended when [the suspect] returned to his normal life.”  Id. at 1225.

[5].Fields, 132 S. Ct. at 1191.

[6].Id.

[7].Id.

[8].Id.

[9].Id.

[10].Id.

[11].See infra Part IV.B; see also Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 467 (1966) (“[W]ithout proper safeguards the process of in-custody interrogation of persons suspected or accused of crime contains 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.”).

[12].Fields, 132 S. Ct. at 1191.

[13].Id. at 1191–92.

[14].See infra Part IV.A–B; Maryland v. Shatzer, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 1224 (2010) (“Interrogated suspects who have previously been convicted of crime live in prison.  When they are released back into the general prison population, they return to their accustomed surroundings and daily routine—they regain the degree of control they had over their lives prior to the interrogation.  Sentenced prisoners, in contrast to the Miranda paradigm, are not isolated with their accusers.  They live among other inmates, guards, and workers, and often can receive visitors and communicate with people on the outside by mail or telephone.”).

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