In back-to-back cases in February 2010, the United States Supreme Court expanded one previously known Miranda principle and announced a new “14-day break in Miranda custody” rule, which changed established Miranda protocol.
First, the Court reviewed the language of one police department’s Miranda advisement form and reaffirmed that imprecise wording of the Miranda warnings does not invalidate them, as long as the words adequately communicate the essential messages of the four rights identified in Miranda.
In a more remarkable opinion the next day, the Court granted law enforcement the authority to initiate contact with a suspect who has previously asserted the right to counsel if there has been a “14-day break in Miranda custody.” Then, the Court ruled that spending 14 days in the general prison population qualified as a sufficient “break in Miranda custody” under this new rule.
Thus, police are now permitted to re-approach a suspect who has already invoked the right to counsel, renew the Miranda advisement, and again attempt to obtain a waiver of rights and statement—when they meet the new 14-day break in Miranda custody requirement.
Imprecise Wording of Warning
Miranda warnings do not have to be verbatim, and the recent ruling in Florida v. Powell further develops this principle. In this case Florida police officers used their department’s “Consent and Release Form” to read Miranda rights to a suspect who had been arrested for unlawful possession of a handgun.
After the Miranda advisement, the police obtained a routine waiver of rights, and the suspect gave a voluntary confession. The only question for the Supreme Court was whether the wording of this particular “Consent and Release Form” provided sufficient Miranda warnings.
The relevant sections of the form stated, “You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions,” and “You have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview.” Notably, the written form did not expressly state that a lawyer could be present throughout the interrogation. The defense attorney complained that this language could lead the suspect to believe that the lawyer could only be consulted prior to questioning (or between questions) and failed to specifically inform the suspect of his right to have the lawyer present during the questioning.
Miranda requires that prior to custodial interrogation, police must clearly inform the individual “that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation.”
According to the Supreme Court, in determining whether police meet this standard, the question is simply whether the language reasonably conveys the rights to the suspect. The particular words are not subjected to the kind of scrutiny that would be applied to a will or a legal document; rather, the words are considered in their totality and given a commonsense reading. The Court ruled that it would be an unusual distortion of words to find that the language on the Florida form meant that the suspect could consult an attorney prior to questioning or between questions, but could not have the attorney present throughout the questioning.
An ordinary understanding of the statements on the Florida form, when read together, was that the suspect was entitled to have an attorney present prior to and during questioning, which is the essence of the Miranda right to counsel.
Thus, the combined statements on the form, although not the best explanation of Miranda rights, “were sufficiently comprehensive and comprehensible” to satisfy the Miranda warning requirement. The four familiar Miranda warnings are all essential, but the Court does not require police to use exact wording when conveying these warnings.
Interrogate After 14 Days
In Maryland v. Shatzer, the Supreme Court established a new “14-day break in Miranda custody rule,” now permitting police to re-initiate custodial interrogation efforts with a suspect who previously invoked the right to counsel during Miranda warnings, but only after the suspect has been removed from Miranda custody for 14 days.
Prior to this case, when a suspect invoked the right to counsel during Miranda warnings, the Edwards rule required police to immediately stop questioning on all matters and barred them from attempting any further custodial interrogation on any matter unless the suspect’s attorney was present or the suspect initiated relevant conversation with the police. This prohibition of attempts to re-initiate interrogation continued as long as the subject remained “in custody”—and still does. But police may now re-initiate efforts to question the subject if he has had a break from inherently coercive “Miranda custody” for a period of 14 days.
Shatzer was serving time in prison when a police investigator tried to question him about allegations that he sexually abused his son. Soon after being Mirandized, Shatzer requested an attorney, and the investigator ended the interview. Shatzer returned to the general prison population, and the investigation was closed. Nearly three years later, another investigator received new related information and reopened the investigation.
He went to see Shatzer in a different prison, where he was continuing to serve his sentence. In a maintenance room outfitted with a desk and chairs, the investigator Mirandized Shatzer and obtained a waiver of rights. Shatzer gave a partial confession and agreed to submit to a polygraph examination. A few days later, the polygraph examiner again Mirandized Shatzer, and Shatzer made more incriminating statements before invoking his right to counsel, which ended the interrogation.
The issue for the Court was whether the second police-initiated contact with Shatzer, after he had invoked his right to an attorney in the first interrogation more than two years earlier, violated the Edwards rule, thus requiring suppression of Shatzer’s partial confession and incriminating statements in the sexual abuse case.
The New Rule
The Court announced a new “break in Miranda custody rule,” and determined that Shatzer’s return to the general prison population for at least 14 days qualified as a sufficient break in Miranda custody (under this new rule) to permit the police to re-initiate custodial interrogation efforts without violating Edwards. The Court reasoned that the general prison population was Shatzer’s customary environment (like his home) where he had social support, familiar surroundings and a daily routine, as opposed to the police-dominated coercive atmosphere of custodial interrogation.
Police must still immediately stop questioning an individual who requests an attorney during the Miranda warnings. However, now when a suspect is relieved from the police-controlled atmosphere of Miranda custody for at least 14 days, the Edwards rule is satisfied and police may again attempt custodial interrogation of the suspect, beginning with new Miranda warnings.
Prior to this 14-day rule, when a suspect invoked the right to counsel pursuant to Miranda, the police were blocked from conducting subsequent custodial interrogation on all matters indefinitely. While it is unusual for the Court to instruct the police with specific timelines, this “14-day break in Miranda custody” rule provides a measurable end to the amount of time that a suspect has to be out of Miranda custody (removed from the pressured environment of police interrogation) before police can re-initiate custodial interrogation efforts.
A more typical situation in which a suspect invokes the right to counsel, bonds out of jail and returns to his home or other familiar environment for 14 days would also satisfy this 14-day break in Miranda custody rule. In this situation, police would now be permitted to initiate new custodial interrogation efforts, beginning with the familiar Miranda protocol.
Importantly, the Shatzer case does not address the ordinary scenario in which police are attempting to question a subject who is in arrest custody and is bound for pre-trial detention in a jail.
If, under those circumstances, the subject asserts to police the right to counsel, all police-initiated interrogation efforts, on all matters, by all investigators, must immediately cease—unless the subject’s attorney is actually present. When the subject is then placed in (or returned to) jail custody, he remains protected from police-initiated interrogation efforts as long as the jail custody continues.
The new Shatzer 14-day rule would not apply in this situation because the subject has not experienced a break in custody in the nature of returning home. The Edwards rule would remain in full force. If the subject were to bond out of jail and “go home,” the 14-day rule of Shatzer would begin.
Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In her 20-year career with law enforcement, Pam McDonald has been a patrol officer, a felony investigator, a felony prosecutor and a college professor in the area of police law. She currently serves as head of the Thomas & Means publications section and assists Randy Means in much of his work. She can be reached at email@example.com.