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Howes v. Fields


The defendant was serving a state prison sentence. A corrections officer took him to a conference room where two officers wanted to question him about unrelated events that occurred before he went to prison. To get to the conference room, the defendant had to go down a floor and pass through a locked door that separated two sections of the facility. The officers told the defendant “that he was free to leave and return to his cell.” The officers repeated this statement to the defendant at a later time. The officers were armed during the interview, but the defendant remained free of handcuffs and other restraints. The door to the conference room was sometimes open and sometimes shut. The officers questioned the defendant for five to seven hours without providing Miranda warnings. The defendant made incriminating statements about the uncharged conduct.


Whether a defendant is “in custody” for Miranda purposes when he is incarcerated at the time of the interrogation?


No. Prisoners are not automatically “in custody” based solely on their imprisonment.


The Court held, “It is abundantly clear that our precedents do not clearly establish… that the questioning of a prisoner is always custodial when the prisoner is removed from the general prison population and questioned about events that occurred outside the prison.” In explaining its earlier Mathis decision, the Court stated “Mathis did not hold that imprisonment, in and of itself, is enough to constitute Miranda custody.” The Court refused to acknowledge a categorical rule that those imprisoned are “in custody.”

“Custody” is a term of art that rests on several significant factors, including the location of the questioning, its duration, statements made during the interview, the presence or absence of physical restraints during the questioning, and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning. “[I]mprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda” the Court found, for three basic reasons:

1) it does not generally involve the shock that very often accompanies arrest

2) “a prisoner, unlike a person who has not been sentenced to a term of incarceration, is unlikely to be lured into speaking by a longing for prompt release,” and

3) “a prisoner…knows that the law enforcement officers who question him probably lack the authority to affect the duration of his sentence.

In this instance, the defendant was not in custody for Miranda purposes.


565 U.S. 499, 132 S. Ct. 1181 (2012)

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