Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Inmates are not necessarily in "custody" for Miranda cases

Let's face it. It's getting harder and harder to win a habeas corpus motion in federal court. This time around, the Court of Appeals rejects a claim brought by an inmate who incriminated himself without Miranda warnings.

The case is Georgison v. Donelli, decided on December 7. In 1993, Georgison was accused to hitting someone with a pipe in the Bronx. This dispute apparently arose from an organized crime dispute over the garbage carting industry. Three years later, when Georgison was in jail on an unrelated offense, the authorities wanted to ask him questions about that assault the Bronx. Georgison met with these unarmed detectives in a visitor's room while a sergeant waited outside. Georgison was not read his Miranda rights but he did say a few things which incriminated him, i.e., he denied piping anyone even though the detectives said nothing about a pipe. He also admitted he was on the premises when the assault took place. These admissions got him convicted for assault, and he lost his appeals in the state courts. Hence, the habeas corpus petition.

The question is whether, in ruling against him, the state courts unreasonably applied settled Supreme Court authority. Under the 1996 habeas corpus law, state courts have some leeway in interpreting the U.S. Constitution. This kills a lot of habeas corpus petitions, and it dooms Georgison's. Miranda requires that anyone in police custody be read their rights before the police can ask them questions. Georgison relies on Mathis v. United States, 391 U.S. 1 (1968), for the proposition that inmates are per se "in custody" for purposes of Miranda and thus must be advised of their rights before answering law enforcement's questions. After all, inmates are not exactly free to leave the way the rest of us can.

The Second Circuit (Miner, Wesley and Stanceu [D.J.]) disagrees. The Court finds that "the Supreme Court has cast serious doubt on the existence of a per se or bright-line rule that would require Miranda warnings in the prison setting. The Court of Appeals notes that, in Bradley v. Ohio, 497 U.S. 1011 (1990), even Justice Marshall suggested in dissenting from the denial of certiorari that the Supreme Court had yet to "clarify what constitutes 'custody' for Miranda purposes in the prison setting." The Court of Appeals has also ruled in United States v. Newton, 369 659 (2d Cir. 2004) that "the mere fact of incarceration does not necessarily require that an individual be in the sort of custody that warrants Miranda warnings before an interview." This means that the law in this area is not clearly-establishes for purposes of winning a habeas corpus petition under the 1996 habeas law. The state courts, then, did not unreasonably apply constitutional law in ruling against Georgison. As he was free to get up and leave during the interview -- and he actually did so -- Georgison was not restrained during questioning, and Miranda warnings were therefore not required here.

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