Interrogations: What Is Custody?

The Miranda Rule: What Is Custody?

The Miranda Rule applies only during “custodial interrogation.” Therefore, unless a suspect is both (1) “in custody” and (2) being “interrogated,” police need not provide the warnings described in Miranda. In this chapter, we consider how the Court has defined “custody” in cases applying the Miranda Rule. We also review some of the literature evaluating the practical effects of the doctrine on suspects and police.

In Miranda, the Court wrote: “By custodial interrogation, we mean questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” Subsequent cases, however, have strayed from the expansive definition of “custody” implied by the words “deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.”

Students should note that the definition of “custody” under Miranda differs from the definition of a “seizure” for Fourth Amendment purposes. In other words, a person can be “seized” (or “detained”) but not be in a situation in which Miranda warnings are required before police may begin interrogation. Yet Fourth Amendment law remains a useful touchstone because if a person is not “seized”—that is, if a reasonable person in her situation would have felt free to leave—then it will be difficult to argue that she was “in custody” for Miranda purposes.

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

We have seen the Court’s preference for objective tests—those based upon what a “reasonable” person would have done or believed in certain circumstances—over subjective tests based on what a specific person was actually thinking. When deciding whether Sylvia Mendenhall was detained (Chapter 19), for example, the question was not whether she felt free to leave but instead was whether a hypothetical reasonable person in her situation at the airport would have felt free to leave. Similar analysis pervades decisions about whether consent for searches was validly obtained.

Further, the Court has often seemed to adopt a one-size-fits-all concept of the reasonable person. To return to Mendenhall: The Court considered briefly that she was “22 years old and had not been graduated from high school … [and was] a female and a Negro” interacting with white police officers. Nonetheless, the Court’s “reasonable person” analysis paid little attention to these factors, finding them “not irrelevant” but not especially important. Critics have suggested (as they have in other legal contexts applying “reasonable person” standards, such as tort law) that the beliefs and behaviors of a reasonable person will depend significantly on factors such as race, sex, education, age, and social class, to which the Court gives little attention.

In the next case, the Court considered the potential relevance of someone’s age to the question of whether he was “in custody” for purposes of Miranda. The result differed from the common one-size-fits-all concept of “reasonable” that the Court had previously applied in Miranda cases. 


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Criminal Procedure: Undergraduate Edition Copyright © 2022 by Christopher E. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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