A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court recently gave a crimped answer to the question of when police are obligated to inform people of their Miranda rights - the right to remain silent and the right to be provided counsel. In a 5-4 ruling, the court upheld the murder conviction of a 17-year-old and allowed his confession to be used against him, even though he was never informed of his rights during a two-hour police interrogation.
The Miranda warnings are vital, because interactions with police are inherently intimidating and can easily become coercive.
This case arose when Michael Alvarado, a minor, was brought by his parents to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office after a deputy had tracked them down and asked them to bring Michael in.
When Michael arrived at the sheriff's office, he was called a "suspect" by one deputy and taken into a small interrogation room. His parents' request to join him was denied. Over the course of two hours, Michael was questioned about a carjacking that led to a man's murder. Michael at first denied the allegations but later agreed that he had played a passive role. He was convicted and received a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court said the California state courts' determination that Michael was not "in custody" at the time of the interrogation was not an unreasonable understanding of current law. Custody is the key, because Miranda warnings are required only when people are held by police in a way that causes them to reasonably believe they cannot leave. The person doesn't have to be formally arrested, just constrained physically or psychologically.
The more liberal members of the court all dissented, saying that of course Michael believed he was in custody. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote: "What reasonable person in the circumstances - brought to a police station by his parents at police request, put in a small interrogation room, questioned for a solid two hours, and confronted with claims that there is strong evidence that he participated in a serious crime - could have thought to himself, "Well, any time I want to leave I can just get up and walk out?' "
The majority abandoned common sense in order to limit the circumstances under which Miranda warnings are mandatory. Many police agencies are hostile to the recitation of a few sentences that inform suspects that they retain some rights during questioning. The high court misguidedly went along.