Howes v. Fields (2012)

Legal definition of coercion is complicated by incarceration, where the rights of inmates are often confused by authority figures, especially police, as well as the threat of violence they pose. Critically, Constitutional protections are respected inside of prisons, and inmates’ rights – especially in matters of questioning which potentially might lead to their further imprisonment – are of critical concern. Prisons are sprawling self-contained cities under strict control, but remain places where any instances of authorities separating inmates from a general population for purposes of questioning are protected under the Fifth Amendment, especially as interpreted under Mathis v. United States (1968). That said, prisons reflect a unique structure where such protections, complicate matters of coercion in determining which instances of police questioning demand invocation of Miranda Fifth Amendment reminders and protections.

Howes v. Fields (2012) provides a strong basis for considering this modern legal phenomenon. The following work will consider this case, as well as mount an analysis to consider legal precedent as they establish the nature of coercion as they apply in this instance, and consider a range of elements to show that the Court was incorrect to deny his appeal, and arguments which show that Fields should have been read his Miranda rights by the deputies in this case. A close reading of the difference between the Sixth Circuit decision – and its reversal by the Supreme Court – will instead show that Fields’ questioners’ actions were appropriate and that the Court was proper to reverse the ‘Bright Line’ rule established by the Sixth Circuit.


In its fifty-year history, the reading of Miranda rights have been “[associated]…with the act of formal arrest,” and most people now reasonably expect that this reading indicates that “their movement is restricted.” To this end, there is certain precedent to argue that the Supreme Court was incorrect to rule as it did, and that questioning which is felt under custodial interrogation carries a degree of coercion tantamount to instances when arresting officers administer Miranda warnings, but “[fail] to honor a request for an attorney or to remain silent.” Howes v. Fields (2012) is a recent Supreme Court decision which builds upon fifty years of precedent which began with Miranda. The definition and precedents of custody and coercion in legal questioning it sets are most controversial when considered in light of the various exigencies exposed in Fields’ interrogation, particularly the fact that the questioning deputies in this instance were visibly armed. Thorough consideration and rigorous analysis of this case demands a review of several areas of pertinent precedent and case law.

In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court forbade subjecting suspects in custody to questioning after they had exercised their Fifth Amendment rights, and required criminal subjects to be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and informed of their right to not self-incriminate prior to direct questioning.

Perhaps more critical, however, to this consideration is Howes is Mathis v. United States (1968), which ruled that Miranda warnings apply given whenever an inmate is removed from the general prison population for questioning. Mathis is critical to prison law, and found that during the course of an “incarcerative interrogation,” – that is, one which takes place when the subject is in jail or prison – any investigators, such as IRS agents in this case, must inform suspects of criminal activity of their Miranda rights. Finally, in Rhode Island v. Innis (1980) the court ruled that Miranda did not apply in instances when the method of the questioning was not coercive interrogation but its “functional equivalent.” Thus the Court ruled that police could employ any number of verbal techniques in conversational speech in order to elicit the suspect offering evidence of self-incrimination. This last case, and the concept of implicit coercion it presents, is most critical to informing the background of this analysis.

Howes v. Fields (2012)

In the early evening of December 23, 2001, prisoner Randall Lee Fields was being incarcerated at the Lenawee County Sheriff’s Department on charges of disorderly conduct. In the course of this incarceration, Fields was separated from an inmate population and brought to a conference room by deputies, where he was questioned for several hours with regard to criminal activity unrelated to his current sentence.  During the course of his interview, no warnings or disclosure of Fields’ Fifth Amendment rights (per Miranda) were given, but the questioning officers also made it explicitly clear that Fields was free to return to his cell at any time.

In the course of this questioning, Fields confessed to the crime in regards to which he was being questioned – involving sexual conduct with a 12-year old boy – but later tried to suppress the confession. Fields’ motion to suppress the testimony he presented during the course of this interview was denied, and he was convicted of that crime. In 2010, on appeal, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled categorically that Fields’ interrogation was custodial within a reading of Miranda, because the fact of his isolation from the general prison population, when contextualized to the fact of his being questioned about a manner unrelated to his incarceration, ensured that this interrogation was custodial per se.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision is critical for this analysis, due to that court’s application of a ‘Bright Line’ ruling with respect to Fields’ treatment in this environment. In essence, this ‘Bright Line’ test, by its “formalization” under the Sixth Circuit, represents an extension of rights to prisoners which do not generally apply to the general public; This was an area of concern that was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, upon Warden Carol Howes’ appeal of the Sixth Circuit’s decision in 2012. After a series of oral arguments, the Supreme Court would deny this appeal, and ruled 6-3 that Miranda warnings were not required to be applied in all situations in which a prisoner speaks to a government official, as well as that the protections Howes received from the lower court were improper. By its reversal of the Sixth Court decision, the Supreme Court held that that lower court had erred in their interpretation of the law, especially under 28 U.S. Code § 2254, which pertains to habeas rights on behalf of persons in state custody, and is better-known as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

In a statement written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court conceded that while there was not robust consensus on the definition of custodial interrogation, “isolation from the general prison population, combined with questioning about conduct occurring outside the prison,” did not make such “interrogation custodial per se.” The case raises a range of complex issues. In particular, because Howes was already under custody, the legality of his being separated from the rest of the inmate population – in effect, of his being taken into further custody – is the primary issue in this case. The following section will offer a comprehensive analysis of the case, and consider arguments brought before the court in 2012.


Consideration of this case demands an understanding of modern criminal law, particularly the persistence of the confession in the conduct of legal investigations. Even in light of rapid advancements in forensic and modern computer-aided evidence collection, confessions remain one of the most commonly-sought pieces of evidence sought by prosecutors. The reason for this ongoing prominence is simple: Confessions exert a “greater impact on juries than other types of evidence,” and are often used as a basis for jury judgment even when juries are presented with “contradictory evidence.” Across the broader justice system, and involving cases not determined by jury, “confessions are so powerful” that once they are obtained, “additional investigation often stops and the subject is prosecuted and convicted.”

Confessions, as well as admissions and statements made to law enforcement authorities are protected under the Constitution, but also statutory and case law. The goal of these laws is to ensure that confessions made before trial are ‘voluntary,’ and not made under duress or coercion. Critically, confessions often receive a suppression hearing before trial, after which it is the responsibility – of juries – to determine whether the confession is credible. That said, the reliability of confessions has increased in doubt, alongside with the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, in exposing the frailty of people when providing evidence of crimes. Despite the relative “efficiency” with which confessions allow prosecutors to solve crimes, evidence has provided evidence of false confessions “in approximately 25% of…DNA exoneration” cases,” indicating that false confessions are epidemic in the modern American justice system.

DNA evidence for the faulty nature of confessions indicates that confessions are often obtained through coercion of a subtle variety which might result in the suspect incriminating themselves inadvertently, especially when considering the psychology and sophistication which arresting officers and prosecutors can bring to their attempts to obtain a confession.

It is in light of the transparent evidence of mass false confessions in American jurisprudence that examination of the Fields case reveals a key piece of evidence, namely the likelihood of Howes to be susceptible to coercion by implication. To this end, it is necessary to reexamine the actions taken by the deputies in the conduct of Howes’ interview. It appears that the questioning deputies exercised due diligence in their respect for Howes’ Constitutional rights, and this is reflected in their conduct. These officers left the door to the chamber open, and are likely to have respected Howes’ request to leave, but Howes’ interrogating officers were also visibly armed. Though it might be argued that the fact of his guards being armed was diluted by the presence of armed guards throughout the facility – and the fact that, per Maryland v. Shatzer (2010), this was not a circumstance or pressure with which Fields was unfamiliar, the presence of visible weaponry in this instance can be argued to have had some diluting effect on the impact of any procedural measures taken to mitigate the presence of coercion during Fields’ interview.

The different situations in which Miranda warnings apply are critical to this consideration. In particular, The Court noted in Berkemer v. McCarty (1984) that the purposes of the “safeguards prescribed by Miranda” were to ensure that the police would not “coerce or trick captive suspects into confessing,” as well as to relieve the “inherently compelling pressures” which are generated by the context of the “custodial setting itself.” The benefit, then, of Miranda, is not only to those being questioned, but to the courts themselves, which are freed by it “from the task of scrutinizing…cases to determine, after the fact,” whether any confession under examination has been voluntary.

Key to its enforcement are a series of tests, including A Freedom of Movement test, also identified in Berkemer as a ‘Freedom of Action’ test. In Berkemer, a motorist was questioned in the course of a routine traffic stop, and not provided with their Miranda rights, and incriminated himself by making affirmative statements when questioned by the officer about whether he was intoxicated. In this case, the court ruled that Miranda applied. In its opinion, however, in a finding which is germane to this analysis of Howes, the court found that at a traffic stop, the “freedom of action of the driver and the passengers [was] significantly curtailed.” In addition, the Court found that “few motorists would feel free either to disobey a directive to pull over or to leave the scene…without being told that they might do so.” This case exposes the critical grey area in police questioning which the outside deputies exploited in Howes.

In Berkemer (1984), the ruling cited the fact that the law of “most States…[hold] that it is a crime” to disobey a police officer’s signal to stop a car, as well as to “drive away without permission” if flagged down by a police officer while driving.” To this end, the court held that “stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants” constituted a “seizure,” within the definition of the Fourth Amendment, “even though the purpose of the stop [was] limited,” and the detention which resulted from the stop was “quite brief.” Because Berkemer was restricted of his freedom of action, the question of his custody (despite the fact that the Court ruled that it did not constitute Miranda custody), remains in doubt.

To this end, the lesson of Berkemer when considering Howes lies in implicit coercion, and the many elements which color interactions between criminal suspects and the police. Implicit coercion in the course of interaction with authorities is often derived from the fact of such authorities being armed (but keeping these weapons holstered), and language to this effect is found in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case U.S. v. Va Lerie (2004).
In this case, Keith Va Lerie was held in connection with cocaine seized from his luggage by the Nebraska State Patrol as he was traveling by interstate coach bus. Though this is nominally a Fourth Amendment case, Va Lerie was informed that he was “not in trouble or under arrest,” but was nonetheless brought by investigators to a room at the rear of the baggage terminal. In this case, while the Eighth Circuit found – among other elements of the case, including Va Lerie’s guilt – that Va Lerie’s consent for the search had not been “[negated]” by the presence of “two or three officers being armed with holstered firearms,” a strong case was made for the officers’ visible weapons negatively influencing Va Lerie’s capacity (or willingness) to offer consent to the search.

Common ground between U.S. vs. La Verie (2004) and Berkemer v. McCarty (1984) is with regard to the appearance of coercion on the part of arresting officers, which can often be subtle, subjective, and difficult to prove. That said, in both of these cases, the Freedom of Action of the suspects was reduced, albeit implicitly, though this would not stop the Court from ruling twice that such coercion was not sufficient as to impair their “free exercise of…privilege against self-incrimination” sufficient that a reading of their Constitutional rights was mandated.

Though rulings have prevailed (including in Howes), which appear to indicate that the standards by which custody, or coercion in the course of obtaining a confession are to be judged, are quite high, the arguments presented in Berkemer and U.S. vs. La Verie to indicate that arresting authorities are often coercive. Moreover, the grey areas which determine custody. Through extending Miranda’s custodial protections to interactions at police traffic stops and other seemingly-innocent interactions with the authorities, indicate that law enforcement often seeks confessions outside of traditional custodial interaction, or using non-traditional means of coercion. To this end, implicitly coercive custody might present – and demand just as rigorous an application of Miranda – in situations as innocuous as a conversation with the police.

While Fields’ interrogation was likely undertaken in as non-coercive a manner is possible – and indeed, the officers repeatedly made it explicitly clear that Howes’ participation was not mandatory, nonetheless, this situation remains one pervasively complicated by intent, on either side of the questioners’ table. On one hand, the deputies – who were external to the prison – show clear intent to obtain information from Fields with regard to the case unrelated to his imprisonment. This fact is clear from the substance of the case. However, based on their actions, the elements raised in court with regard to their ensuring that Fields was aware of being free to go were insufficient. Particular attention must be paid to the fact that while Fields stated that he no longer wished to answer questions from his interrogators, he never asked to return to his cell. This is a critical element which provides insight onto whether this was a coercive encounter.

Because Fields asked to end the questioning, his intent to return to his cell is apparent. However, the authorities (also, by their actions) can be shown to have willfully misinterpreted the intent of Fields’ statement, in order to prolong the lengthy questioning. Despite the appearance of a non-coercive custodial environment, Fields was nonetheless separated from the rest of the inmate population, and subjected to an interview with much of the appearance and implicit power dynamics of a coercive interrogation, especially due to the officers’ carrying holstered firearms. To this end, precedent set by Rhode Island v. Innis (1980) becomes most apparent and useful to this consideration.

In Rhode Island v. Innis (1980) officers arrested a man in connection with a gun crime, and held him in the back of a police car. From the front seat of the car, they conducted a seemingly-unrelated conversation about a nearby school for the disabled, and expressed concern that one of the children from that school might find a gun nearby and harm themselves. This exchange had the effect of causing Innis to spontaneously seek to direct his arresting officers to where he had hid the gun, out of concern for the schoolchildren’s welfare. In this case, the defendant Innis was convicted, but appealed the conviction. The Rhode Island appeals court sided with Innis, and ruled that the gun would be suppressed from evidence, but when the Supreme Court heard the case in 1980, they reversed the lower court’s decision. The Court ruled that the officers’ statements were not interrogation, and the gun could remain in evidence.

Another important element germane to Howes v. Fields is the concept of the prison environment itself. In Maryland v. Shatzer (2010), the Court ruled that because “interrogated suspects who have previously been convicted of crime live in prison,” this means that any interrogation they might face “pursuant to a conviction,” constituted the “prisoner’s ‘normal life,’” and that as a result the prison setting was not “inherently coercive” in itself. The implication of this ruling is that prisoners, by definition of their imprisonment, become used to the prison environment, to a point where – as opposed to a free person on their first interaction with the police – they are not presumed to be coerced by merely interacting with a police officer. Shatzer is poor precedent, especially in this instance; While oral arguments in Howes v. Fields argued that the fact of the deputies who engaged in Fields’ interrogation being from outside the prison contributed to its non-coercive nature, this also provides evidence to indicate that the situation was unprecedented and not reflective of his ordinary prison life.

Because Shatzer argues for inmates to be not provided with Miranda warnings on the grounds that interrogation in this manner is part of their “normal life,” the situation in Howes reveals a situation for which Fields was unprepared. Moreover, the timing of the interrogation – which lasted from the evening to the early morning – is a testament to the implicit coercion on display, as this was a time of day when Fields would have otherwise been sleeping. In this situation, it appears that the Court was incorrect to cite Shatzer.

In the course of oral arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised the idea that because Fields had been taken from his cell and put into another room, it was reasonable for him to believe that because “[he had been] forced to go to another place,” this meant that he was in custody. To this, John Bursch, Solicitor General of Michigan, on the behalf of Warden Carol Howes, argued that this situation did not constitute custody under which a Miranda warning was mandated, and asked that a larger scope of the situation had be taken into account. Fields was not entitled to a reminder of his rights, because “a reasonable person in his position would have felt free to go back,” an element of the case which this lawyer argued was the “dispositive inquiry.”

Indeed, there are a range of elements in this situation which indicate that Fields did not have to remain; Foremost among these was the fact of his not being subjected to physical violence, his being provided food and water, that the door to the conference room where he was being questioned was “periodically” left open, and most notably, that when Fields became belligerent, he was told by the deputies that he would “have to go back to [his] cell,” and that he would “have to leave,” a line of reasoning presented as indicating the “exact opposite of Miranda custody.” However, based on this consideration, this argument (and a wide range of precedent) shows that while the authorities in this instance were performing a range of actions designed to ensure that testimony would show that they had created an environment which did not seem to be custodial, custody was implicit, not least because of the nature of the questioning.

Interaction between people and the police outside of prison is shown to be colored by the inherent disparities in power on display in these encounters, where the option to reject police lines of inquiry is often minimal. Miranda, then, exists to re-balance the scales, in a manner which would theoretically allow suspects to exercise their rights, and allow arresting officers to escape culpability for pressuring witnesses to confess to crimes without a reminder of their rights to not self-incriminate. In either of these cases, and in Howes, it is apparent that arresting authorities have determined methods by which they can exercise coercion while also framing questioning as a non-custodial affair. In particular, the coercion in the Howes case is circumstantial, especially regarding the time of day; Howes’ questioning occurred at night and lasted through the night, an action on the part of authorities at the margins of sleep deprivation. In addition, the facts about which arresting deputies (who were men that Howes had never seen before) are also critical to understanding the nature of this coercion. While Fields was told he was free to go, the nature of the questioning – in regard to whether he had molested a child – was sufficient to provoke this man, who was already being incarcerated on a disorderly charge; It is not likely that Fields’ tendency toward anger was something which his questioners were unaware, especially when confronting him about a manner unrelated to his current incarceration. Moreover, while Fields would told that he would have to return to his cell, this was likely less interpreted by Fields as a statement of his freedoms than a vague threat in the custodial setting.

In addition, the mere fact of Fields being incarcerated does not mean that this questioning was non-custodial. Despite rulings to the contrary – especially Shatzer – it is clear that Howes reveals a situation where a prisoner (who might have been inured to authority contact by his incarceration, but this is not necessarily the case) was moved from his cell to an environment which seemed custodial to Fields. Though the case reveals a range of elements put into place designed to ensure that the questioning deputies could argue that they were not presenting a coercive custodial environment, it is apparent that this was an action interpreted by Fields as his arrest (even inside prison), and his interrogation. Though Fields was told he was free to go, his interactions with prison officers indicate that Fields likely inferred that his failure to cooperate with their questioning would lead to further negative consequences.

As presented by David and DeGuerin (2014), Howes v. Fields established the idea that custody, when contextualized to Miranda, is a “term of art that specifies circumstances that are thought generally to present a serious danger of coercion,” which specifies that such protections – and awareness of legal rights – are to be laid bare before the suspect in order for a suspect to prevent self-incrimination. In this way, the range of examples from the case law which this section has presented will indicate that obedience theory is germane to this consideration. In particular, as presented by Barrio (1997), while Miranda is essential in situations which are predicated on the rational suspect, suspects do not always behave in a rational manner.

At the core of obedience theory is the idea that the “the irrational behavior of guilty suspects,” both in the context of search and in interrogation, provide strong evidence that “people mechanically obey…legitimate authority,” a conception of the suspect/police relationship which this author argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has “virtually [ignored],” an objection which can be extended to Howes. Because any questioning “entails inherent pressures that act to weaken a suspect’s will to resist,” law review findings show that is critical for Miranda to be applied as soon as the suspect’s questioning begins, regardless of the circumstances which inform such questioning. In keeping with evidence presented in this work which indicates the strong presence of implied coercion in all interactions with the police, Kitai-Sangero (2012), in the New Mexico Law Review, argues that merely “announcing to suspects that they are…free to end the interrogation whenever they want is not enough to protect them from being compelled to talk.” Because suspects are often irrational, as well as often subtly compelled to obey legitimate authority – especially in the incarceration context – there is little reason to presume that the appearance of a ‘non-custodial’ environment is sufficient to render these suspects immune to the various authority pressures which present in this context.

Bright Line Test

            While the preceding sections have provided evidence to indicate the likelihood of an element of implicit coercion at work during Fields’ interrogation, the true matter at hand in this analysis pertains not to the nature of law enforcement in the United States, but rather to the decision and rule established by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010. In their ruling for Fields, the Sixth Circuit “[formalized] a bright line test for determining whether Miranda rights are [automatically] triggered for an incarcerated individual,” and established it was necessary for such warnings to be delivered if an inmate was “isolated from the general prison population,” especially if they were questioned about conduct which occurred outside the prison. While the evidence presented in the preceding sections indicates that this decision was proper – especially given the presence of implicit coercion which can often manifest in a subtle manner, especially in a prison environment – arguments presented before the Supreme Court upon the appeal of this decision indicate that the formalization of a ‘bright line’ test was inappropriate.

Arguing on behalf of Warden Howes, Bursch questioned the Sixth Circuit’s ruling for the inadmissibility of any self-incriminating statements made in the interrogation of incarcerated persons – absent the application of Miranda – denoted by separation of the incarcerated person from the population and their questioning in matters unrelated to their current incarceration. In particular, this argument would highlight the key difference between these court decisions, especially the presence of the ‘Bright Line’ rule from the Sixth Circuit Court establishing that prisoners had to be Mirandized in all situations involving their removal from the prison population, which was criticized in the course of oral arguments as a decision on the part of the Sixth Circuit which “[afforded] greater protections to prisoners than other citizens.”

In his ruling for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito would argue that the grounds provided by the deputies in this instance with respect to whether Fields’ questioning constituted a custodial encounter, especially under which Fields was “advised…[that he] was free to terminate the interview,” were supported by sufficient precedent to indicate that “the defendant [was] not in custody.” Alito, echoing the arguments made by Solicitor General Bursch, then argued that the Supreme Court has never “suggested that Miranda erects a larger shield for prisoners” – that is, there is no precedent to indicate that prisoners must be Mirandized in all situations in which they are questioned while incarcerated. Following this vein, the Court criticized the Sixth Circuit’s decision as serving to provide greater protections to prisoners than ordinary citizens, and that because “because Fields was incarcerated…[Miranda]  advisements had no bearing on the Court’s analysis,” and the only critical element was whether Fields was in custody.

Based on this statement, the specificity of the Court’s decision in this instance is made clear; The Supreme Court was not ruling on the potential for this encounter to have presented sufficient grounds for coercion on the part of questioning deputies as to be considered custodial and thus necessitating Miranda warnings. Instead, the Court was ruling on the propriety of the Sixth Circuit’s decision to mandate that such warnings be given before all interactions between a prisoner and questioning authorities, under a fairly-strict standard for establishing custody.

Other reasons why the Supreme Court reversed the lower Court’s ‘Bright Line’ ruling include the argument that incarcerated people are unlikely to believe that any outcome of their questioning would result in their release from prison. In addition, because questioning authorities have no ability to shorten the incarcerated person’s existing sentence, one unrelated to the matter of the questioning, Miranda is also unnecessary in non-custodial encounters. To this end, based both on the Sixth Circuit’s ‘prioritization’ of prisoner’s rights over those held by citizens in a non-Mirandized custodial environment, as well as environmental elements which inform questioning of incarcerated persons, the Supreme Court held that Fields’ interrogation (given the material facts of the interrogation, particularly that Fields was told that he was free to leave), did not constitute a custodial environment under Miranda.

Reviews by Other Researchers

Concerning the Miranda custody, if a case is to be decided on two grounds one, which involves a constitutional question and the other a question of general law, the court, is to decide on the ground of general law. In Howes v. Fields, the court did not follow this principle. Fields maintained that he never received any warnings as prescribed by Miranda. In its ruling, the Supreme Court made several explanations. First, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) excluded the habeas relief because the court’s rejection of fields’ claim was not contrary to unreasonable application of law. The inmate interrogation was not custodial, and so the use of the inmate’s statements was in line with Miranda.  This case presents the willingness by the courts to overlook principles when interpreting constitutional provisions.

Randall Fields was already in jail serving a sentence when he was locked in a conference room and interrogated for more than five hours. The questioning concerned allegations that before his current imprisonment he had sexually abused a child. The Deputy Sheriffs did not read him his rights rather they told him that he was free to return to his cell anytime. Eventually, Fields’ confessed and was confined back to his cell. The state charged Field with sexual conduct introducing his confession, but field claimed that the use of his confession would violate Miranda. The case was a constitutional matter since unless the right to consult an attorney and to remain silent is granted to an object of a custodial interrogation, Miranda rule condemns the use of that objects response against him/her in trial. The trial overlooked this principle and went ahead to convict Field on the ground that at the time of his interrogation, Fields was not in custody and so Miranda posed no barrier to the use of his confession.

Fields filed for habeas relief, and the District Court awarded relief since he satisfied § 2254(d)(1)’s. The panel held that in Mathis v. United States the Supreme Court applied Miranda and held that a warning is required when an imprisoned individual is isolated from other prisoners for purposes of interrogation. Fields was taken to the conference room away from other prisoners and interrogated and thus fits this rule. The Supreme Court held that a prisoner who meets the Miranda requirements should not be taken outside the scope of Miranda just because of his imprisonment. However, given that Fields was reputedly reassured that he is free to leave the well-lit interrogation room, was not physically restrained and the room was averagely sized, then by the definition of Miranda, Fields was not in custody.

Fields was being interrogated by two deputy sheriffs in a conference room. Though repeatedly reassured he was free to leave, he did not request the interrogation, and the sheriffs were armed, and the interrogation lasted for far too long. Justice Ginsburg argued that had the case been in court on direct review rather than habeas petition, she would have ruled that Miranda excluded the use of his testimony in court. The Harvard law review concurs with the ruling of the Supreme Court on the grounds of constitutional interpretation. Contrary to my analysis, the review does not put into consideration that the Supreme Court never considered the element of coercion. Fields could have been coerced to confess.


This work has considered the idea of the false confession, especially as it reflects the behavior of investigating officers and prosecutors of criminal suspects. Key to these concepts is the idea of passive coercion, or implied coercion, an element difficult to determine or define, but which appears to be clearly validated by the sheer number of faulty but previously-presumed-legitimate confessions of individuals exonerated by DNA evidence. In these cases, police interaction with the suspects is innocuous and adheres to codes of protocol, and to the law, but there is nonetheless coercion which can result in a false confession.

Through consideration of this phenomenon, this work considered two instances (Berkemer v. McCarty [1984] and U.S. v. La Verie [2005]), in which the former argued that a police interaction as innocuous as a traffic stop constituted ‘seizure,’ where there was an implication of coercion, and the latter involved the presence of consent regarding a man – while not under arrest – nonetheless being questioned by armed officers at a road stop. That said, the Supreme Court decision did not apply directly to these elements, especially those which seem to indicate the presence of implicit coercion in a custodial environment, and which have informed the bulk of this analysis. Instead, the Court’s ruling in Howes v. Fields pertained to whether the decision by the Sixth Circuit was appropriate in its application of a ‘Bright Line’ rule which would mandate the reading of Miranda warnings in any situation where a prisoner was separated from the larger population and questioned in manners unrelated to their incarceration. In this case, the Supreme Court’s ruling was appropriate, but conservative.

Indeed, because Miranda does not apply to all interactions with the police, especially outside of prisons, it would be inappropriate to extend greater protections to inmates than those afforded to ‘ordinary citizens,’ in instances pertaining to their questioning. However, the Supreme Court’s argument that the questioning environment was not one which was reflective of custody, because Fields was both seemingly free to go, as well as being questioned in a manner the outcome of which would have no impact on his current incarceration, does not necessarily take into question the scope of potentially-coercive factors which this work has considered.

While the Supreme Court’s decision is good law, theirs was also a limited decision, and one based solely upon establishing the propriety of the lower court’s ruling. Case law and precedent considered in this analysis would seem to indicate that were many factors which influenced the conduct of Fields’ interrogation and rendered the reading of Miranda appropriate; However, because the Supreme Court ruled on all cases involving custodial interrogation in prison, they were proper to overturn the ‘Bright Line’ rule established by the Sixth Circuit, and concede that the Court had not established comprehensive precedent with respect to custody.

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