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Justices hear arguments on totality-of-evidence standard, Miranda custody

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is deciding whether an incarcerated person is per se in custody for Miranda purposes in one of its latest cases.

The justices heard oral arguments in State v. Brian L. Halverson on Monday morning.

In July 2016, Halverson was accused of stealing and destroying several documents, and he was detained in the Vernon County Jail. The investigating police officer called Halverson at the jail and questioned him for three to four minutes about the destroyed documents.

The officer told Halverson who he was and why he was calling, but he didn’t threaten Halverson or give him a Miranda warning. During the call, Halverson admitted to destroying the documents, and he was subsequently charged with criminal damage to property and misdemeanor theft.

Halverson moved to suppress all evidence obtained from the phone call, arguing that because he was in jail, the officer was required to inform Halverson of his Miranda rights.

Chippewa County Circuit Court Judge Steven Cray granted Halverson’s suppression motion, and the State appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Howes v. Fields effectively overruled the per se custody rule from State v. Armstrong.

The appellate court followed Howes’ totality-of-the-evidence standard, a two-part inquiry in which courts analyze the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, and determined that a reasonable person in Halverson’s situation would have felt comfortable ending the phone call.

Halverson appealed that decision, and the state Supreme Court is now reviewing the case. The justices are considering if incarceration automatically produces Miranda custody under the Wisconsin Constitution and if the circumstances around Halverson’s interrogation put him in Miranda custody.

Attorney Megan Sanders-Drazen appeared for Halverson during oral arguments on Monday. She said she knew it’s rare for the state Supreme Court to extend protections under the Wisconsin Constitution, but it’s necessary in this case.

“The justices of this court have the independent power and obligation to interpret the Wisconsin Constitution and to decide what protections are required under that Constitution for the people of this state, ” Sanders-Drazen said. “Yes, a contradiction with Howes v. Fields, but a contradiction that’s warranted under the circumstances.”

Attorney Sarah Burgundy, who appeared for the State, said when the Wisconsin Supreme Court found expanded protections in the Wisconsin Constitution in the past, the protections didn’t contradict U.S. Supreme Court law. Rather, they added an additional layer of protection.

“It wasn’t saying we completely disagree with the Supreme Court,” Burgundy said. “It was saying we see these gaps, and we want to fill these gaps. To contradict the Supreme Court would be kind of a big step for this court to take.”

Burgundy also pointed to the totality-of-the-circumstances test for Halverson’s phone call. She said other courts have uniformly said phone calls don’t create Miranda custody, and the test covers protections for incarcerated individuals.

Sanders-Drazen argued that Miranda is a Constitutional rule, but one that requires a prophylactic warning to protect the right against self incrimination.

“I think a realistic look at the pressures that go along with incarceration when combined with the inherently compelling pressures of police interrogation demonstrate that a prophylactic warning is critical in this context to provide meaningful protection to the right against self incrimination,” Sanders-Drazen said.

Burgundy agreed with defining Miranda as a Constitutional rule, but said she thought Sanders-Drazen’s argument went too far.

“If prison has such inherently compelling pressures on a prisoner, I think it’s going to be difficult to say that anything that a prisoner says, even with Miranda warnings, is voluntary under the Goodchild (totality of the circumstances) analysis,” Burgundy said.


About Michaela Paukner, [email protected]

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at [email protected]

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