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Law School Case Brief

Howes v. Fields - 565 U.S. 499, 132 S. Ct. 1181 (2012)


Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), a federal court may grant a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus if the state court adjudication pursuant to which the prisoner is held resulted in a decision that was contrary to clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States. In this context, "clearly established law" signifies the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of the Supreme Court's decisions.


Respondent Fields, a Michigan state prisoner, was escorted from his prison cell by a corrections officer to a conference room where he was questioned by two sheriff's deputies about criminal activity he had allegedly engaged in before coming to prison. At no time was Fields given Miranda warnings or advised that he did not have to speak with the deputies. The trial court denied Fields' motion to suppress his confession under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694, and he was convicted. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Fields' contention that his statements should have been suppressed because he was subjected to custodial interrogation without a Miranda warning. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan subsequently granted Fields habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the grant of habeas relief under 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254(d)(1), holding that respondent inmate's interrogation was a “custodial interrogation” under Miranda because removal to a prison conference room and questioning about conduct occurring outside the prison made any such interrogation custodial per se. Petitioner warden sought review and certiorari was granted.


Was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit correct in its interpretation that the interrogation which occurred was a “custodial interrogation” under Miranda?




According to the Court, standard prison conditions and restrictions did not necessarily implicate the same interests that Miranda sought to protect. Thus, the Court ruled that being in prison, without more, was not enough to constitute Miranda custody. Taking the inmate to a conference room, as opposed to questioning him in the presence of fellow inmates, did not necessarily convert a noncustodial situation to one in which Miranda applied. In this case, the Court determined that factors that leaned toward finding the inmate's questioning was custodial were offset by others: he was told at the outset, and reminded thereafter, that he could leave and go back to his cell whenever he wanted, he was not physically restrained or threatened and was not uncomfortable, was offered food and water, and the door to the conference room was sometimes left open. Those objective facts were consistent with an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave. The Court held that being told if he did not cooperate he would be returned to his cell was not coercion by threatening harsher conditions.

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