Posted by Edmund R. Folsom, Esq., February 10, 2017

Just because a person is in jail does not necessarily mean the person is in “custody” for Miranda purposes.  The Supreme Court declared this to be true several years ago, in Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499 (2012).  At this point, at least some Maine police officers have caught on.  Now, in light of State v. Ames, 2017 ME 27 (decided February 7, 2017), we should expect more Maine police to catch on, and we should expect them to attempt more un-Mirandaed interrogations of people in jail.

As background, the Miranda ruling holds that when a person is subjected to custodial interrogation his responses may not be used against him in the State’s case in chief, unless the police first read Miranda warnings and the person waives Miranda rights.  Whenever a person attempts to keep statements out of evidence based on a claimed Miranda violation, the State must prove either that the statements are not the product of custodial interrogation, or that Miranda warnings were read and waived.

Wallace Ames worked in a restaurant, in Lewiston, and had a key to the place.  On May 29, 2015, someone stole money from the restaurant.  Police eventually came to suspect that Ames was that certain someone.  Ames was also on probation for domestic violence assault.  On June 4, 2015, he was arrested for a probation violation because he tested positive for drug use.  On June 8, 2015, Ames was still being held at the Androscoggin County Jail on the alleged probation violation.  That day, Lewiston police Detectives Michaud and Conley decided to go to the jail and interview Ames about the restaurant burglary and theft.  Ames was removed from his cell and brought to a visitation room, where he met with the 2 detectives who were unarmed and in plain clothes.  The visitation room was large and well-lit.  It had windows.  In the middle of the room, there was a long table with chairs on either side.  Ames sat on one side of the table, and Michaud and Conley sat on the other.  There was no guard at the door and there was nothing between Ames and the door.  Events were recorded.

At the outset, Detective Conley introduced Michaud and herself.  She said they were not there to talk to Ames about the probation violation matter and told Ames he was there of his own free will and that he could leave and go back to his cell any time he wanted; that jail was his “’home’ for the time being.”  Conley asked Ames if he was comfortable speaking to the detectives.  Ames answered that he was interested in hearing what the detectives had to say.  At first, Ames denied involvement in the burglary and theft. Michaud encouraged Ames to cooperate, “clear the table” and put everything behind him, telling him the detectives had no doubt he’d done it, they were going to prove it anyway, and by then he would be back on track with probation and they would just come along and derail him again.  Ames asked what kind of sentence a person might get for theft.  Michaud said it might just be a fine and that, in his experience, courts take into consideration whether a theft is related to a drug problem.  Right after this, Ames confessed.  The entire discussion between Ames and the detectives was conversational.  The officers were not aggressive or threatening.  The officers did not, at any point read, Miranda warnings to Ames.

Ames was indicted for Class C burglary and Class E theft.  He moved to suppress his responses to the police questioning, arguing that he was in custody when he was questioned and that the police were therefore required to read Miranda warnings and secure his waiver.   The motion to suppress was denied. Ames entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 5 years, with all but 6 months suspended, and 2 years of probation on the burglary charge, with a concurrent 30 days on the theft (Oops, so much for maybe just a fine, huh?).

Ames’s sole ground for appeal was an alleged Miranda violation.  The primary thrust of that claim was that his detention at the jail created a coercive atmosphere which constituted custody for Miranda purposes.  To address this contention, the Law Court turned to Howes v. Fields.  In that case, Fields had been serving a sentence in a Michigan jail when he was taken to a medium-sized conference room for questioning by 2 armed sheriff’s deputies.  He was questioned over a 5 to 7-hour period about suspected sexual activity with a 12-year-old boy prior to his incarceration.  At the beginning of the interview, and at one other point during questioning, Fields was told he was free to leave the room if he wanted.  He was never read Miranda warnings.  The Supreme Court ruled that a person who is serving a sentence, and is removed from the general prisoner population for questioning about a crime outside the facility, is not thereby automatically rendered in custody for Miranda purposes.  The Court found that the circumstances Fields faced did not present the same inherently coercive pressures as those of the station house questioning involved in Miranda.  Under the circumstances, the Court held that Fields was not in custody for Miranda purposes during his interrogation.  In Ames, the Law Court took its lead from Howes v. Fields.  The Law Court held that the fact of incarceration alone did not render Fields in custody for Miranda purposes, and the particular circumstances of Ames’s interrogation also did not make his questioning custodial.  Because Ames’s questioning did not amount to custodial interrogation, Miranda warnings were not required.

Again, the sole issue Ames raised was whether his statements should have been suppressed as the product of un-Mirandaed custodial interrogation.  Because Miranda rights are purely a creation of federal law, with no independent underpinning in Maine constitutional, statutory, or case law, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, in Fields,  that incarceration does not automatically constitute Miranda custody, had already settled that issue entirely.  The Law Court pointed out that some of what occurred in the exchange between Ames and detectives Conley and Michaud might have borne on the voluntariness of Ames’s statements under Maine law, but Ames did not raise voluntariness as an issue in his appeal.   In footnote 3 of the Ames decision, the Law Court stated:

We distinguish the issue of whether Ames was in custody from the issue of the voluntariness of his confession.  For a confession to be admissible, it must be made voluntarily. State v. Kittredge, 2014 ME 90, ¶ 24, 97 A.3d 106. “A confession is voluntary if it results from the free choice of a rational mind,  if  it  is  not  a  product  of  coercive  police  conduct,  and  if  under  all  of  the  circumstances  its admission would be fundamentally fair.”  State v. Mikulewicz, 462 A.2d 497, 501 (Me. 1983).  Whether an officer made “threats, promises or inducements” to the defendant to secure a confession is one of many  factors  we  consider  in  determining  whether  a  confession  was  voluntary.  State v. Lavoie, 2010 ME 76, ¶18, 1 A.3d 408 (quotation marks omitted).  Ames makes no argument regarding voluntariness.

Several  of  the  detectives’  statements  throughout  Ames’s  interview  suggested  that  Ames’s cooperation with the investigation could affect the outcome of probation revocation proceedings. While such statements may be considered under a voluntariness analysis, the issue is not before us and we decline to address it.

This should serve as a reminder that challenges to the voluntariness of a statement under Maine law should never be overlooked.  Miranda applies to a relatively narrow set of circumstances—custodial interrogation.  Voluntariness is an issue that exists in circumstances both within and beyond the scope of custodial interrogation.  Also, unlike a Miranda challenge, which requires the State to prove compliance only by a preponderance of the evidence, when the challenge is voluntariness under Maine law, the State bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  The police might comply with Miranda, by reading warnings and obtaining waiver, and then pursue interrogation using threats, promises or inducements that render the responses involuntary.  If the only challenge raised is Miranda, the State just might get away with using the involuntary statements they elicit– and that would not be good at all.