Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Supreme Court Fantasy Land

The US Supreme Court issued a new decision today on when investigators are required to give suspects Miranda warnings. From the first headline I saw on msnbc, I was worried it was a broad, sweeping rollback on Miranda, but it's not. I still have some problems with it, though. (I knew I would as soon as I saw the majority opinion was written by Justice Alito.)

The case centered on the question of when a prison inmate is "in custody" for purposes of an interrogation about a crime. Miranda warning cases always center around the question of whether the defendant is in custody at the time of questioning. If the defendant is in custody, the police must inform her of  the famous Miranda warnings. If the defendant is free to leave, though, there is no warning requirement. Obviously, a prison inmate is in custody, but was this inmate in the custody of the sheriff's deputies who were questioning him?

The Court found that he was not, but in getting there, they once again revealed that when it comes to criminal law, specifically interactions with police, some of them (ahem, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, I'm looking at you) live in a fantasy land that has no connection with reality. And they feel no shame about issuing rulings based on their fantasy land without any sense of how the real people living in the real world will be affected.

For example, the Court reasoned that while a suspect yanked from his home, arrested, and facing suspicion would feel the shock of a tremendous change and would feel "inherently compelling pressure" to talk to police. Prisoners, they assume, wouldn't feel any such pressure upon being removed from their cells and taken to a room somewhere where they will face questioning on some new crime. The defendant in this case was removed from his cell very late at night by prison terms (something like 9 pm) and kept for hours. But, gee, there'd be no pressure in that situation. In fact, it would just be a nice break from the norm. Some new scenery, new people to chat with.

The Court also takes it on faith that a guy already serving a prison sentence won't make the mistake of thinking the people he's talking to might have some effect on his prison sentence. In Alito's world, there's no reason for a prisoner to think that a sheriff's deputy has any "official power" over him. And prison inmates won't feel compelled to speak out of fear of reprisal for non-cooperation. Right. Because those sheriff's deputies couldn't possibly talk to the corrections officers who control every aspect of the prisoner's life. The idea that failing to cooperate could make the inmate's life miserable at the hands of corrections officers just never occurred to the Court. It also doesn't seem to have occurred to them that even hardened criminals well-used to prison life might still be foolish enough to be coerced to talk to cops out of some desperate hope they might not get more time added to their sentence.

There's also a lot of musing about whether an inmate being removed from general population is being removed from a supportive atmosphere. I'm not sure that Justice Alito or any Supreme Court Justice is in any position to know what sorts of friendships or animosities develop in a prison's general population. Have any of them ever even set foot in a prison?

I also love the part where the Court concludes that the inmate would have felt free to leave the questioning even though he had to wait 20 minutes for a guard to escort him back to his cell. I gotta say, every time I've been to prison, I sure haven't felt free to leave. I can't just get up and leave a room. Doors won't open unless I have a prison official escorting me. So it's just a bit of a disconnect to have the Court applying its standard touchstone of whether a reasonable person would feel free to leave when we're talking about a police encounter inside a prison.

Under the facts of this particular case, I'm not all that bothered by the ruling in this situation. (As a criminal defense lawyer, I really have to pick my battles and this particular guy isn't close to the worst Miranda violation I've seen.) But I really do wish that the Supreme Court would buy themselves a clue about the real world before issuing decisions that will affect those of us who live here.


Burt Likko said...

This is a great write-up and a great demonstration of the disconnect between the marble-faced halls of the elites on One Constitution and the real world where their pronouncements are given effect.

It seems to me that if we're dealing with a prison inmate, as opposed to a jail inmate, we're necessarily discussing someone who is serving a sentence for a crime of which they've already been convicted. In that world, the full force of Constitutional protections is more than a bit relaxed, and there's ample precedent for that. (This doesn't mean I think it's good precedent, mind you.)

Certainly I understand that if I've been convicted of crime X, and am serving my time for X, and then am yanked out of my cell at 9:00 p.m. and questioned about crime Y, X is different than Y and I'm still entitled to a presumption of innocence and in an ideal world, against self-incrimination. But we also already know that if I've been convicted from X and I'm out on parole, I have no Fourth Amendment right from being searched, without a warrant and simply on demand, and no ability to block evidence that I've committed crime Y. So convicts live in a world of diminished rights, at least according to established doctrines. So is this decision really changing much of anything?

S said...

In that sense, no this case doesn't change much. And this guy was specifically told he could leave, so from a precedent standpoint, it might not even affect that many other cases.

I just think this case is a prime example of why we need diversity on the court, especially diversity of legal experience. Had anyone on that court ever actually represented murderers and visited them in prison, perhaps some of their reasoning wouldn't have been such silly musings on life inside prison walls.

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