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The Supreme Court hears arguments for Howes v. Fields

October 7th, 2011

This Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Howes v. Fields, a case dealing with the 5th Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination and the infamous Miranda warning. For a summary on the case’s background, you can check out this Harlan Institute FantasyCast. In short, the case arose when an inmate at a Michigan prison was removed from his cell and questioned about conduct that occurred outside the prison. During this interview, he made incriminating statements that were later used against him in court. Fields challenged this outcome by arguing that his 5th Amendment rights were violated when he was not read hisMiranda rights before the interrogation.
John Bursch, the Solicitor General of Michigan, represented the petitioner Warden Carol Howes. He argued that a Miranda warning is only necessary when a person is “in custody” of police, and because Fields was told he was free to leave at any time, he was not in police custody for Miranda purposes. Justice Sotomayor gave Bursch a hypothetical, asking him whether Fields would have been considered to be “in custody” if he hadn’t been told he were free to go. The Petitioner argued that there were other factors that would allow Fields to reasonably believe that he was not being restrained, for example, the door was not locked and the interview was held in a conference room and not an interrogation room. Justice Sotomayor later challenged this argument again, asking “shouldn’t the presumption be that if you’re forced to go to another place, you’re in custody?”  Ginger Anders, Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, argued on behalf of the petitioner as well, advancing many of the same arguments.
Representing the respondent, inmate Randall Fields, Elizabeth Jacobs argued that Fields’ rights were violated when he was not informed that he had the right to avoid self-incrimination before the interview: “Telling him he is free to go is not a substitute for Miranda.” Justice Alito raised some questions, asking why an inmate would be considered “in custody” if he told officers he wanted to stay and discuss the allegations after being told he was free to leave.
You can hear a full audio recording of the oral arguments on Oyez.org.