When a crime is committed and the police conduct an investigation, there is typically an interview of the suspect.
When this happens, certain procedures must be followed to ensure that whatever is said by the potential defendant is admissible in court.
Case law tells us that before the statements (or confessions) of an “in custody” suspect can be admitted into evidence it must be shown they were given “Miranda warnings” as to their self-incrimination rights and the right to counsel, they waived the rights, and then agreed to answer questions.
By the same token, if a suspect isn’t in custody and they answer questions, with or without Miranda warnings, their statements are admissible.
This is why it is important to determine a suspect’s custody status when the police conduct an interview if Miranda warnings aren’t given.
Most of the time it’s clear when a suspect is in custody, but when it isn’t, the law has developed certain factors for a court to use in deciding the custody question.
The starting point in reaching a decision is to ascertain if, in light of the objective circumstances of the interrogation, a reasonable person would have felt that they were not at liberty to terminate the questioning and leave. This is called “freedom of movement.”
The United States Supreme Court has held that the objective circumstances are as follows with no single circumstance being controlling:
• The location of the interview — Was it at a police station or jail?
• Duration — Was the interview lengthy or short? The longer it is the greater the chance that there was custody.
• Statements made during the interview — Was the suspect told they were free to leave? Did the interview become accusatory?
• Physical restraints — Was the suspect in handcuffs? Were they brought to the interview in a police car? Was there an armed officer present?
• Release — Was the suspect released after the interview or were they taken to jail?
The court must also determine if the interview was in a “coercive environment” based upon the totality of the circumstances presented including if coercive pressures were applied.
These are never easy cases and the courts are there to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected.