Jailhouse Interrogation Without Miranda Upheld as Valid

On April 9, 2010 the Supreme Judicial court ruled in COMMONWEALTH vs. THOMAS SMITH 456 Mass. 476 (2010) that a jailhouse questioning did not rise to the level of custody requiring a Miranda warning to be issued.

In deciding the case, the court stated “Motions to suppress. The defendant contends that the motion judge (who was different from the trial judge) erred in concluding that the defendant was not in custody when he spoke with Trooper Anne Marie Robertson of the State police and Lieutenant Philip Warrish of the Taunton police department in the New Hampshire State prison (where the defendant was held on unrelated charges) on February 2 and March 11, 2005. (During these interviews the defendant stated that he was present at the murder scene, but denied participating in the shooting.) The defendant also claims that the Commonwealth did not meet its burden of proving that he waived his Miranda rights and spoke to the police voluntarily. The defendant concedes that his Miranda rights were recited to him; it is his contention that he did not effectively waive them.

In reviewing a judge’s denial of a motion to suppress, we accept the judge’s findings of fact and will not disturb them absent clear error. See Commonwealth v. Gomes, 453 Mass. 506, 508-509 (2009); Commonwealth v. Jones, 375 Mass. 349, 354 (1978). We determine independently the correctness of the judge’s application of constitutional principles to the facts found. Commonwealth v. Mello, 420 Mass. 375, 381 n.8 (1995). Questions of credibility are the province of the judge who had the opportunity to observe the witnesses. See Commonwealth v. Martin, 447 Mass. 274, 280 (2006).

Miranda warnings are required only when an individual is subjected to custodial interrogation. Commonwealth v. Morse, 427 Mass. 117, 122 (1998). To determine whether a defendant is in custody we generally consider four factors: “(1) the place of the interrogation; (2) whether the officers have conveyed to the person being questioned any belief or opinion that that person is a suspect; (3) the nature of the interrogation, including whether the interview was aggressive or, instead, informal and *479 influenced in its contours by the person being interviewed; and (4) whether, at the time the incriminating statement was made, the person was free to end the interview by leaving the locus of the interrogation or by asking the interrogator to leave, as evidenced by whether the interview terminated with an arrest” (Groome factors). Commonwealth v. Groome, 435 Mass. 201, 211-212 (2001), citing Commonwealth v. Morse, supra at 121-127, and Commonwealth v. Bryant, 390 Mass. 729, 737 (1984).

This test is “not particularly apposite,” however, for determining whether a defendant already behind bars is in custody for purposes of questioning by law enforcement personnel. Commonwealth v. Larkin, 429 Mass. 426, 434 (1999). In such event, “rather than asking whether a prisoner was free to leave the facility, [courts have asked] whether he is subject to some restraint in addition to those normally imposed on him by virtue of his status as an inmate.” Commonwealth v. Perry, 432 Mass. 214, 238 n.18 (2000), quoting Commonwealth v. Larkin, supra. In other words, we seek to determine whether the person is subject to coercion beyond that inherent in ordinary prison life. See Commonwealth v. Larkin, supra at 435.

The evidence here supports the judge’s finding that the defendant was not in custody in these circumstances, i.e., not subject to coercion beyond that inherent in ordinary prison life, when he spoke to the police on February 2 and March 11, 2005. Considering the Groome factors in turn, the defendant was interviewed in a room characterized by the motion judge as resembling “more of a neutral site than a correctional setting.” The room was in a “more open part of the facility” than his cell block. See Commonwealth v. Larkin, supra at 435 n.6. “Courts have uniformly found that such a setting militates against a finding of custody.” Id. In addition, the defendant’s handcuffs were removed before the interview began.

There is no evidence that either of the officers conveyed to the defendant the fact that they believed he killed the victim, and the motion judge did not find to the contrary (second Groome factor). See Commonwealth v. Morse, supra at 124. Although the defendant was given his Miranda rights at the outset of each interview, such recitation does not cause the interview to become custodial. See Commonwealth v. Hilton, 443 Mass. 597, 610 n.7 (2005). In fact, we encourage law enforcement officials to provide *480 Miranda warnings before the moment at which an encounter becomes custodial rather than to wait until the precise time when the warnings are constitutionally required. See id., citing Commonwealth v. Raymond, 424 Mass. 382, 393 n.9 (1997).

According to the judge’s findings, which are supported by the evidence, the manner in which the interviews were conducted was cordial (third Groome factor). “[B]oth interviews were free of antagonism and [neither officer] was overbearing.”

With regard to whether the defendant was free to end the interview (fourth Groome factor), the motion judge found nothing to indicate that the guard’s presence or the use of handcuffs “represented anything more than the usual incidents of bringing an inmate into an area of the prison.” Although the officers never told the defendant that he could leave the room if he wished, that factor is not dispositive. See Commonwealth v. Larkin, supra at 436 n.8. As the judge found, the defendant “controlled the duration of [each] interview.” When the defendant indicated that he had nothing more to say, the interview ended. The defendant was not charged at the end of either interview. Commonwealth v. Groome, supra at 212 (relevant to whether suspect is free to leave is whether he was arrested at conclusion of interview). For the reasons stated, the motion judge concluded correctly that the interrogations were not custodial. Accordingly, no Miranda rights were implicated in the process, and thus, there is no meaningful question whether any of the defendant’s rights were voluntarily waived.”


Two major cases in the area are cited in the case regarding interrogations. Comm v. Larkin 429 mass. 426 (1999), and Comm v. Groome 435 mass. 201 (2001) both are excellent cases for anyone looking to understand the fundamentals of Interrogations and whether Miranda warnings are necessary.

Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

About Attorney Ronald A. Sellon

Ronald A. Sellon is a licensed Attorney in the state of Massachusetts and U.S. District Court, Massachusetts as well as a Sergeant with a Municipal Police Department and U.S. military Veteran. Additionally, he has taught Criminal Procedure at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in New Braintree and has written a text on Criminal Procedure for police field training officer programs. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, was a 2008 recipient of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (Mass C.O.P.) Presidents award and holds a Bachelors Degree in Law Enforcement, a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice Administration, and a Juris Doctor Law Degree. Questions related to content material may be directed to RSellon@PoliceLegalPromotions.com
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