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

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.

Randall Lee Fields.
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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