Today in 1980: SCOTUS rules on definition of “interrogation” in Miranda context

May 12, 2016

Today in Legal HistoryThe Miranda warning, created by the 1966 Supreme Court ruling Miranda v. Arizona, is one of the most iconic statements in criminal law.

The warning, which is meant to protect individuals from self-incrimination, bars law enforcement from interrogating a criminal suspect in police custody without the satisfaction of certain procedural requirements (such as having an attorney present) – or the express waiver of those constitutional rights by the suspect.

But Miranda has spawn a long line of case law on its own, largely because the original 1966 ruling couldn’t exhaustively  discuss all possible factual scenarios in which the boundaries of the Miranda warning’s application become more obscure.

One such circumstance is determining what exactly constitutes police interrogation for the purposes of the warning.  The question was the central issue in Rhode Island v. Innis, decided by the Supreme Court on May 12, 1980, 36 years ago today.

The case began with the grisly murder of a Providence, RI taxicab driver.  The driver had disappeared after being dispatched to pick up a customer, and was found dead and buried in a shallow grave four days later.

A few days later, the Providence police received a call another taxicab driver “who reported that he had just been robbed by a man wielding a sawed-off shotgun.”  While at the police station, the driver saw a photo of the assailant on a police bulletin board, and informed one of the officers of such.  The driver again identified the same man from a photo array prepared by the police, which was the defendant Thomas Innis.

Later that day, a policeman on patrol recognized Innis on the street, and stopped his car, at which point, Innis walked toward it, unarmed.  The patrolman then arrested Innis, and read him his Miranda rights.  Several other officers later arrived, and Innis was read his Miranda rights two additional times.

On the way to the police station, the three officers accompanying Innis began to converse among themselves about the missing shotgun.

One officer later testified:

At this point, I was talking back and forth with Patrolman McKenna stating that I frequent this area while on patrol and [that because a school for handicapped children is located nearby,] there’s a lot of handicapped children running around in this area, and God forbid one of them might find a weapon with shells and they might hurt themselves.

After the conversation continued on a bit longer, Innis interrupted the officers and told them to turn the car around so that he could show them where the shotgun was located.  After Innis was once again read his Miranda rights, he “replied that he understood those rights but that he ‘wanted to get the gun out of the way because of the kids in the area in the school.’”

Innis then led the officers to a nearby field, where he revealed the location of the shotgun.

Before trial, Innis sought to suppress the shotgun and the statements he made to the police about it.  His motion was denied by the trial court, finding that Innis had been “repeatedly and completely advised of his Miranda rights.”  Innis was convicted of all counts at trial.

On appeal, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed the conviction, finding that Innis had been “subjected to ‘subtle coercion’ that was the equivalent of ‘interrogation’” through the officers’ discussion of potential harm to vulnerable children from the shotgun.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and it reversed 6-3.  The majority ruled that “interrogation” for the purposes of the Miranda warning “refers to any words or action on the part of the police, other than those normally attendant on arrest and custody, that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect.”

The Court further held that Innis was not interrogated here because the police did not direct any questioning at him, nor should the officers “have known that their brief conversation in his presence was reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.”

According to a dissent by Justice Marshall, however, Innis was interrogated by police:

One can scarcely imagine a stronger appeal to the conscience of a suspect — any suspect — than the assertion that if the weapon is not found an innocent person will be hurt or killed.

Nevertheless, the majority’s viewpoint prevailed, and such indirect tactics seemingly do not run afoul of Miranda – as long as police do not reasonably believe that they are likely to elicit an incriminating response from the defendant.