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Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, February 7, 2005

New Case: Stationhouse Interrogations and Miranda Custody

Last week, the Eighth Circuit in U.S. v. Brave Heart, 03-2888 (and here) held that a suspect was not in custody for purposes of Miranda under the following facts:  Brave Heart, a Native American, had called 911 when a 10-month old child in his care died.  The next day, an FBI agent asked him to come down to the police station for an interview after the agent learned that the pathologist's  report, showing the death was caused by two blows to opposite sides of the head, conflicted with Brave Heart's story.  The ninety-minute interview at the station was in two parts.  The doors to the interrogation room were closed throughout, and the officers told Brave Heart at the beginning of the first phase of the interrogation that he was not under arrest.  During the first part of the interrogation, the officers, playing "good cop," simply listened to Brave Heart's presumably false explanation in a civil, nonthreatening manner.  Then the officers took a 10-minute break, stating that they needed to make some phone calls.  After the break, the officers returned with a much more accusatory tone, and informed Brave Heart that they had just spoken to the pathologist and that the pathologist's report conflicted with Brave Heart's explanation.  This information was false, as the officers had actually spoken to the pathologist earlier in the day, but intentionally made it seem to Brave Heart as if they had learned this information during the 10-minute break.  During the second phase of the interrogation, the officers told Brave Heart that they knew he was responsible for the killing, and employed a sympathy-rousing routine to elicit a confession.  The officers told him that what he had done was understandable given that he was under a lot of stress having to watch so many children, and that the mother of the child shared some of the responsibility for the child's death.  Brave Heart, who was crying during this second phase of the interrogation, ultimately admitted that he had beaten and killed the child and was placed under arrest.  At no time was Brave Heart given Miranda warnings.

After the district court had suppressed the confession finding that Brave Heart was in custody for purposes of Miranda during the second phase of the interrogation, the Eighth Circuit reversed. 

While Oregon v. Mathiason holds that not all stationhouse interrogations can be considered "custodial" for purposes of Miranda, this case seems to present some significant differences that, in my opinion, suggest that custody was present.  In both cases, the suspect came to the police station voluntarily and was told at the outset that he was not under arrest.  Beyond that, however, the facts of the two cases diverge.  In Mathiason, the interrogation lasted less than 10 minutes, while in Brave Heart, more than 90 minutes.  In Mathiason, the interrogation remained calm and civil throughout, while in Brave Heart the interrogation took on a decidedly accustatory tone for an extended period of time during the interrogation's second phase.  Most importantly in my opinion, however, is the fact that in Mathiason the officer told the suspect at the beginning of the interview (falsely) that his fingerprints were found at the crime scene.  He was also informed at the same time that he was not under arrest.  Thus, Mathiason could reasonably believe that he was not under arrest despite the fact that his fingerprints had been found at the scene.   In Brave Heart, however, the officers pretended like they obtained this inculpatory information in the middle of the interrogation, and then began accusing Brave Heart of having committed the crime.  This is significant because a reasonable suspect in Brave Heart's shoes would likely believe at the beginning of the second phase of the interrogation that, now that the officers have suddenly obtained new evidence of his guilt, he was no longer free to leave.  In other words, the new evidence of guilt had trumped the earlier statement that he was not under arrest.  The officers in Brave Heart set up the interrogation such that the statement at the beginning of the interrogation that Brave Heart was not under arrest would seem meaningless given the subsequent, intervening events.  [Mark Godsey]

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CrimProf points out this new Eight Circuit case (requires pdf.) in a post today, where the Eight Circuit held that an interrogation conducted in a police station without Miranda warnings, lasting 90 minutes, starting out friendly and ending accusator... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 7, 2005 1:47:20 PM


You're right, professor, this decision is mistaken.

Posted by: | Feb 7, 2005 7:11:18 AM

This is indeed troubling. Specifically, on page 8 of the findlaw version, the court says "Brave Heart was not physically restrained... although the district court found that the statement that the officers needed to make phone calls implied that BH should stay because questioning was incomplete, we do not believe that a reasonable person would have interpreted the break as constituting a message that he was not free to depart"

I have serious reservations about this - given the coercive nature of police interrogations to begin with. In this case, specifically, the district court found that the officers told BH they were taking a "break" and needed to make phone calls and then asked him if he wanted something to drink. I seriously doubt the conclusion that any reasonable person, under these circumstances, would consider himself free to leave.

The circuit court, isolated from the real world practice, is merely fantasizing here.

Posted by: Three Generations | Feb 7, 2005 1:29:18 PM

Courts' construction of "free to leave" seems increasingly unrealistic with every passing case. It's quite disturbing that judges can be so out of touch with defendants.

Given last term's decision in Hiibel, reversal at the SCOTUS level looks unlikely. Sadly.

Posted by: Jennifer | Feb 7, 2005 4:18:19 PM

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