Being polite to a suspect and repeatedly telling him he is free to leave does not create a safe harbor for questioning him without Miranda warnings.
Where the average person would have thought himself in custody, despite the assurances, the Seventh Circuit held the interrogation is unlawful.
Federal agents discovered that Michael S. Slaight was downloading child pornography to his computer in violation of federal law.
They obtained a warrant to seize and search his computer, but deliberately did not obtain an arrest warrant, although they had probable cause to do so. The agents wanted to question him without giving him Miranda warnings to tie up one loose end — whether or not anyone else had access to his computer.
After reserving a “tiny windowless interview room at the police station for interviewing him,” nine or ten officers forcibly entered his home with drawn guns, including assault rifles, to execute the search warrant.
Although the officers did not command Slaight to go with them to the station, they told him they would prefer to interview him there.
Although the room’s dimensions were not in the record, the court referred to the room variously as “minute,” “tiny,” and “Lilliputian.”
At one point, although the officers told him he was free to leave, Slaight said he had no choice because they would arrest him if he did, and the officers did not contradict him. The officers also refused to let him leave to smoke a cigarette.
After an hour-long interview, the officers finally arrested him and gave him the Miranda warnings.
Charged in federal court with receipt and possession of child pornography, Slaight moved to suppress his statements, but the district denied the motion. Slaight pleaded guilty, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion.
In an opinion by Judge Richard Posner, the Seventh Circuit reversed.
“The key facts are the show of force at Slaight’s home, the protracted questioning of him in the claustrophobic setting of the police station’s Lilliputian interview room, and the more than likelihood that he would be formally placed under arrest if he tried to leave because the government already had so much evidence against him,” Posner wrote. “These facts are incontrovertible and show that the average person in Slaight’s position would have thought himself in custody. Any other conclusion would leave Miranda in tatters.”
The court minimized the role of the show of force, however, stating that it was indisposed to question safety measures taken when executing a search warrant. Instead, it noted only that the overwhelming show of force was undeniably intimidating.
The court put much more emphasis on the size of the interrogation room, and the fact that Slaight knew the officers could arrest him if they chose to.
“[T]hey persuaded him to come to the police station and arranged to interview him in the claustrophobic setting of a windowless room the size of a bathroom,” the court explained. “Since he knew they knew he’d violated federal law, he could not have believed they would let him go rather than arrest him if he tried to leave.”
David Ziemer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What the court held
Issues: Was a suspect in custody, despite repeated assertions by police that he was free to leave?
Holdings: Yes. Where the questioning took place in a tiny interrogation room, and the suspect knew the officers had probable cause to arrest him, the interrogation was custodial and Miranda warnings were required.