Prisoners don't have a right to be read their rights, Supreme Court decides

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Somewhere Byron "Whizzer" White is smiling. The late, great University of Colorado football star and U.S. Supreme Court Justice never cared much for his colleagues' bleeding-heart Miranda decision back in 1966, which required that suspects in custody must be advised of their rights before being interrogated. And this week, the Supremes carved out a huge exception to that sacrosanct procedure.

On cop shows, suspects still must be told that they have a right to a lawyer, a right to remain silent, and so on. But in real life, that advisory is no longer required when the suspect is an inmate being questioned about a crime that is distinct from the one for which he's currently incarcerated.

Why? Because, for purposes of the new crime, the incarcerated inmate isn't in a "custodial situation" -- even though he's in jail or prison.

As the Associated Press reports here, the Supreme Court by a 6-3 vote reinstated the conviction of an inmate, Randall Lee Fields, who was questioned about (and ultimately found guilty of) a fresh crime, even though the questioning took place with no Miranda warning. "Imprisonment alone is not enough to create a custodial situation within the meaning of Miranda," reads the majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito.

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Randall Lee Fields.
The dissenters viewed the ruling as one more erosion in the rights of prisoners. "For people already in prison, the court finds it adequate for the police to say, 'You are free to terminate this interrogation and return to your cell,'" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. "Such a statement is no substitute for one ensuring that an individual is aware of his rights."

It's easy to understand why Alioto and others felt strongly about this particular issue. The underlying case deals with Fields, a Michigan inmate in jail on disorderly conduct charges, who confessed to a sexual assault on a minor after seven hours of questioning. But the perp never got his Miranda warning, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction on the grounds that the warning is required when inmates are isolated and grilled.

Alito's ruling weaves some tortuous logic around the notion that an incarcerated suspect is not "in custody" for the purpose of a new crime -- and presumably "free" to leave the room at any time. But that's exactly the kind of "incommunicado interrogation" the Miranda ruling was supposed to prevent, Ginsburg responded.

Yet, as David Simon points out in Homicide, his brillant study of Baltimore homicide detectives, the Miranda procedure has become such a commonplace in police interrogation rooms over the past 45 years that no one gives it a second thought. Good cops have figured out how to work the advisory into an overall routine of seduction and misdirection so that it hasn't cramped their work at all, in spite of Justice White's fears.

So why take the warning away in a setting where, arguably, it might be needed the most? For the same reason that the clocks are striking thirteen in the opening scene of 1984. When you're working on Orwell time, only the illogical makes sense.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Terrell Griswold: Mother questions inmate's 'natural' death in private prison."

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9 comments
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ImpishBrat
ImpishBrat

Who cares. He was already in jail. He confessed. I am glad the loophole didn't allow a child molester to be free of it. I'm sick of freaks getting off.

Tequila
Tequila

It's been my understanding that conviction of a crime takes away many of your rights. I see NO problem with this ruling. After all, incarceration is not the same as a resort vacation, although the bleeding hearts have tried to make it that. I think ALL jails should be built and operated like Joe Arpio's Maricopa County jail- THERE'S a man who KNOWS how a jail should work!

Robert Chase
Robert Chase

You must be seriously confused -- "suspects", by definition, have not been convicted of the crime of which they are suspected (and convicts do not lose their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination either)!

Stan
Stan

It's all subjective.  Still, this debatable subject resides on a slippery slope.  If you're a "convict," you may implicitly be a "suspect," however if you're a "suspect," you're not necessarily a "convict."  Where do we establish a benchmark for this implicitosity (yes, I know... not a word, but I just smoke a huge joint of sativa and that's all I can come up with at the moment)?

Robert Chase
Robert Chase

No, it is completely objective:  suspects cease to be so upon conviction, and neither suspects  nor convicts are deprived of the right not to incriminate themselves.

Stan
Stan

*smoked.... see what I mean?  Holy crap!

Robert Chase
Robert Chase

The Supreme Court of the United States is a criminal institution of enemy combatants against our People and Constitution.

Donkey Hotay
Donkey Hotay

You're starting to sound like Timothy McVeigh

Nunyo
Nunyo

It's about time the biggies did something right.

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