An axiom of the Supreme Court is that for every issue decided there are three more ignored, and each one will inevitably find its way back to the Court's docket.
In 1968, the Court held in Mathis v. United States that a judge should not admit evidence when police officers fail to notify a prisoner of his or her Miranda rights when questioning the prisoner about a crime unrelated to their incarceration. In Mathis, the police officers had reasoned that Miranda was inapplicable because the issue at hand, possible tax fraud, did not usually lead to criminal charges. What the Court did not address was whether or not a prisoner being questioned inside a prison always requires Miranda warnings before an interrogation. Thus, we have Howes v. Fields.
But first, a little more background.
Under Miranda v. Arizona (1966), police officers must notify anyone they take into custody of their 5th Amendment right to counsel (appointed if they cannot afford one), and that anything they say can be used against them in court (right against self-incrimination). Ever since, the Court has been trying to draw lines in the sand that allow for plain, but flexible, rules - rules that aren’t so strict as to inhibit police investigations, but clear-cut enough to define boundaries for suspects.
A problem in this is to define where and when a suspect is in custody and therefore needs to be “mirandized.” Supreme Court precedent shows that the Court prefers an “all-the-circumstances” method, where courts are instructed to consider all the facts in a situation to determine if a reasonable person would feel free to stop and leave the interrogation. For instance, a person being interviewed by a police officer in their living room might not feel restrained, but if that same person were surrounded by belligerent armed guards who had their house on lockdown, then they probably would. Several cases (Oregon v. Mathiason , J.D. B. v. North Carolina , Maryland v. Shatzer ) reaffirm the Court’s penchant for this approach.
Which is why it’s not surprising the justices leaned toward this principle in oral argument for Howes. This case questions whether or not a prisoner, when removed from the general prison population to be questioned about a crime that occurred outside of the prison, must be given a Miranda warning even if the police officers expressly say the prisoner is free to go at any time. Howes argued that Mathis implies a Miranda warning is needed when a prisoner is questioned for an outside crime. Fields and the United States both urged the Court to continue its long line of “all-the-circumstances” rulings.
If the Court chooses to decide the issue before it, instead of ignoring it in favor of a narrower, more technical decision,* it will most likely agree with Fields and the U.S. Solicitor General. After all, it’s going to be an uphill battle when you’re trying to tell the justices who wrote the opinion that they meant something beyond what they wrote down:
Justice Kennedy: And what you infer is the rule that incarceration constitutes custody.What is most interesting about this case, and is usually brought up when advocates argue for Miranda boundaries, is the societal impacts a broad ruling would have. If the Court rules on the merits in this case, it will affect a significant number of trials currently ongoing in lower courts. And according to both attorneys arguing last week, the ramifications involve broader questions about the cost-benefit relationship involved between personal rights and state interest.
Ms. Jacobs: No. Custody is when the prisoner is isolated, incommunicado, outside the general prison population, and he is being asked questions by law enforcement designed to incriminate him...
Justice Kennedy: That is Shatzer, and Shatzer was careful to say we’ve never decided that issue.
Ms. Jacobs: I think what Shatzer was saying, and I know it’s hard for me to tell you what Shatzer is saying since you decided Shatzer, but I think that Shatzer...
Ms. Jacobs: And I understand the Court’s concern that you might lose, you might lose evidence; but Miranda is going to protect us from false confessions, which is even a greater cost to society than having to give the Miranda rights.The court understands this dilemma and they will have to grapple with it if they choose to issue a decision on the merits of the case. It is just as likely, however, that they will rule narrowly on Howes’ particular circumstances and defer the issue again to another term. It is after all, the Court’s favorite move.
Mr. Bursch: I do want to emphasize that the Sixth Circuit’s per se test does have societal cause; it impedes prison administration and eliminates potential for voluntary truthful confessions that we all want.
*Part of the case involves the writ of habeas the 6th Circuit granted for Howes, which relies on a clearly established precedent necessitating the Miranda warning in this situation. The Court could simply determine that habeas relief is based on an incorrect interpretation of Supreme Court precedent and let the lower courts sort it out.