Thompson v. Keohane

United States Supreme Court

516 U.S. 99, 116 S. Ct. 457, 133 L. Ed. 2d 383 (1995)

 

Is a state court’s ruling that a defendant was not “in custody” for purposes of Miranda v. Arizona entitled to a presumption of correctness in a subsequent federal habeas corpus review?

 

 Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

During a two-hour, tape-recorded session at Alaska state trooper headquarters, petitioner Carl Thompson confessed that he killed his former wife. Thompson’s confession was placed in evidence at the ensuing Alaska state-court trial, and he was convicted of first-degree murder. Challenging his conviction in a federal habeas corpus proceeding, Thompson maintained that the Alaska troopers gained his confession without according him the warnings Miranda v. Arizona (1966) requires: that he could remain silent; that anything he said could be used against him in court; and that he was entitled to an attorney, either retained or appointed.

 

Miranda warnings are due only when a suspect interrogated by the police is “in custody.” The state trial and appellate courts determined that Thompson was not “in custody” when he confessed. The statute governing federal habeas corpus proceedings ... directs that, ordinarily, state-court fact findings “shall be presumed to be correct.” ... The question before this Court is whether the state-court determination that Thompson was not “in custody” when he confessed is a finding of fact warranting a presumption of correctness, or a matter of law calling for independent review in federal court. We hold that the issue whether a suspect is “in custody,” and therefore entitled to Miranda warnings, presents a mixed question of law and fact qualifying for independent review.

 

I

 

On September 10, 1986, two moose hunters discovered the body of a dead woman floating in a gravel pit lake on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska. The woman had been stabbed twenty-nine times. Notified by the hunters, the Alaska state troopers issued a press release seeking assistance in identifying the body. Thompson called the troopers on September 11 to inform them that his former wife, Dixie Thompson, fit the description in the press release and that she had been missing for about a month. Through a dental examination, the troopers conclusively established that the corpse was Dixie Thompson. On September 15, a trooper called Thompson and asked him to come to headquarters, purportedly to identify personal items the troopers thought belonged to Dixie Thompson. It is now undisputed, however, that the trooper’s primary reason for contacting Thompson was to question him about the murder.

 

Thompson drove to the troopers’ headquarters in his pickup truck, and upon arriving, immediately identified the items as Dixie’s. He remained at headquarters, however, for two more hours while two unarmed troopers continuously questioned him in a small interview room and tape-recorded the exchange. The troopers did not inform Thompson of his Miranda rights. Although they constantly assured Thompson he was free to leave, they also told him repeatedly that they knew he had killed his former wife. Informing Thompson that execution of a search warrant was underway at his home, and that his truck was about to be searched pursuant to another warrant, the troopers asked questions that invited a confession. ... Eventually, Thompson told the troopers he killed Dixie.

 

As promised, the troopers permitted Thompson to leave, but impounded his truck. Left without transportation, Thompson accepted the troopers’ offer of a ride to his friend’s house. Some two hours later, the troopers arrested Thompson and charged him with first-degree murder.

 

The Alaska trial court, without holding an evidentiary hearing, denied Thompson’s motion to suppress his September 15 statements. ... Deciding the motion on the papers submitted, the trial court ruled that Thompson was not “in custody” for Miranda purposes, therefore the troopers had no obligation to inform him of his Miranda rights. ... Applying an objective test to resolve the “in custody” question, the court asked whether “‘a reasonable person would feel he was not free to leave and break off police questioning.’” ...  These features, the court indicated, were key: Thompson arrived at the station in response to a trooper’s request; two unarmed troopers in plain clothes questioned him; Thompson was told he was free to go at any time; and he was not arrested at the conclusion of the interrogation. ... Although the trial court held that, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would have felt free to leave, it also observed that the troopers’ subsequent actions” releasing and shortly thereafter arresting Thompson” rendered the question “very close.” ...

 

After a trial, at which the prosecution played the tape-recorded confession, the jury found Thompson guilty of first-degree murder and tampering with evidence. The Court of Appeals of Alaska affirmed Thompson’s conviction, concluding, among other things, that the troopers had not placed Thompson “in custody,” and therefore had no obligation to give him Miranda warnings.... The Alaska Supreme Court denied discretionary review. ...

 

Thompson filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska. The District Court denied the writ, according a presumption of correctness … to the state court’s conclusion that, when Thompson confessed, he was not yet “in custody” for Miranda purposes. ... The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed without publishing an opinion. ... Based on Circuit precedent, the court held that “a state court’s determination that a defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda is a question of fact entitled to the presumption of correctness….

 

Federal Courts of Appeals disagree on the issue Thompson asks us to resolve: whether state-court “in custody” determinations are matters of fact entitled to a presumption of correctness … or mixed questions of law and fact warranting independent review by the federal habeas court.... Because uniformity among federal courts is important on questions of this order, we granted certiorari to end the division of authority. ... We now hold that the [statutory] presumption does not apply to “in custody” rulings; accordingly, we vacate the Ninth Circuit’s judgment.   

 

II

 

“[I]n-custody interrogation[s],” this Court recognized in Miranda v. Arizona, place “inherently compelling pressures” on the persons interrogated. ... To safeguard the uncounseled individual’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, the Miranda Court held, suspects interrogated while in police custody must be told that they have a right to remain silent, that anything they say may be used against them in court, and that they are entitled to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed, at the interrogation. ... The Court defined “custodial interrogation” as “questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.” ...  Our task in petitioner Thompson’s case is to identify the standard governing federal habeas courts’ review of state-court” in custody” determinations.

 

A

 

[28 U. S. Code] Section 2254 governs federal habeas corpus proceedings instituted by persons in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court. In such proceedings, 2254(d) declares, state-court determinations of “a factual issue” “shall be presumed to be correct” absent one of the enumerated exceptions. ... This provision, added in a 1966 amendment, ... received the Court’s close attention in Miller v. Fenton ... (1985). As the Miller Court observed, 2254(d) “was an almost verbatim codification of the standards delineated in Townsend v. Sain ... (1963), for determining when a district court must hold an evidentiary hearing before acting on a habeas petition.” ... Townsend counseled that, if the habeas petitioner has had in state court “a full and fair hearing . . . resulting in reliable findings,” the federal court “ordinarily should . . . accept the facts as found” by the state tribunal. ... Section 2254(d) essentially “elevated [the Townsend Court’s] exhortation into a mandatory presumption of correctness.”...

 

Just as Townsend’s instruction on the respect appropriately accorded state-court fact findings is now captured in the 2254(d) presumption, so we have adhered to Townsend’s definition of the 2254(d) term “factual issue.” The Townsend Court explained that by “issues of fact,” it meant “basic, primary, or historical facts: facts ‘in the sense of a recital of external events and the credibility of their narrators . . . .’” ...

 

“So-called mixed questions of fact and law, which require the application of a legal standard to the historical-fact determinations,” the Townsend Court added, “are not facts in this sense.” ... In applying 2254(d), we have reaffirmed that “basic, primary, or historical facts” are the “factual issue[s]”to which the statutory presumption of correctness dominantly relates. ...

 

It must be acknowledged, however, “that the Court has not charted an entirely clear course in this area.” ... In regard to 2254(d), as in other contexts, the proper characterization of a question as one of fact or law is sometimes slippery. ... Two lines of decisions compose the Court’s 2254(d) law/fact jurisprudence.  In several cases, the Court has classified as “factual issues” within 2254(d)’s compass questions extending beyond the determination of “what happened.” This category notably includes: competency to stand trial ... and juror impartiality. ... While these issues encompass more than “basic, primary, or historical facts,” their resolution depends heavily on the trial court’s appraisal of witness credibility and demeanor. ...  This Court has reasoned that a trial court is better positioned to make decisions of this genre, and has therefore accorded the judgment of the jurist-observer “presumptive weight.” ...

 

On the other hand, the Court has ranked as issues of law for 2254(d) purposes: the voluntariness of a confession, ... the effectiveness of counsel’s assistance ... and the potential conflict of interest arising out of an attorney’s representation of multiple defendants. ... “What happened” issues in these cases warranted a presumption of correctness, but the Court declared “the ultimate question” outside 2254(d)’s domain because of its “uniquely legal dimension.” ...

 

B

 

The ultimate “in custody” determination for Miranda purposes, we are persuaded, fits within the latter class of cases. Two discrete inquiries are essential to the determination: first, what were the circumstances surrounding the interrogation; and second, given those circumstances, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave. Once the scene is set and the players’ lines and actions are reconstructed, the court must apply an objective test to resolve “the ultimate inquiry”: “[was] there a ‘formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement’ of the degree associated with a formal arrest.” ... The first inquiry, all agree, is distinctly factual. State-court findings on these scene-and-action-setting questions attract a presumption of correctness under 28 U. S. C. 2254(d). The second inquiry, however, calls for application of the controlling legal standard to the historical facts. This ultimate determination, we hold, presents a “mixed question of law and fact” qualifying for independent review.

 

The practical considerations that have prompted the Court to type questions like juror bias and competency as “factual issue[s],”and therefore governed by 2254(d)’s presumption of correctness, are not dominant here. As this case illustrates, the trial court’s superior capacity to resolve credibility issues is not dispositive of the “in custody” inquiry. Credibility determinations, as in the case of the alleged involuntariness of a confession, ... may sometimes contribute to the establishment of the historical facts and thus to identification of the “totality of the circumstances.” But the crucial question entails an evaluation made after determination of those circumstances: if encountered by a “reasonable person,” would the identified circumstances add up to custody as defined in Miranda? ...  Unlike the voir dire of a juror, ... or the determination of a defendant’s competency, ... which “take[s] place in open court on a full record,” ... the trial court does not have a first-person vantage on whether a defendant was “in custody” for Miranda purposes. ...  Furthermore, in fathoming the state of mind of a potential juror or a defendant in order to answer the questions, “Is she free of bias?,” “Is he competent to stand trial?,” the trial court makes an individual-specific decision, one unlikely to have precedential value. In contrast, “in custody” determinations do guide future decisions. We thus conclude that once the historical facts are resolved, the state court is not “in an appreciably better position than the federal habeas court to make [the ultimate] determination” of the consistency of the law enforcement officer’s conduct with the federal Miranda warning requirement. ...

 

Notably, we have treated the “in custody” question as one of law when States complained that their courts had erroneously expanded the meaning of “custodial interrogation.” ...  It would be anomalous to type the question differently when an individual complains that the state courts had erroneously constricted the circumstances that add up to an “in custody” conclusion.

 

Classifying “in custody” as a determination qualifying for independent review should serve legitimate law enforcement interests as effectively as it serves to insure protection of the right against self-incrimination. As our decisions bear out, the law declaration aspect of independent review potentially may guide police, unify precedent, and stabilize the law. ...

 

Applying 2254(d)’s presumption of correctness to the Alaska court’s “in custody” determination, both the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that Thompson was not “in custody” and thus not entitled to Miranda warnings. Because we conclude that state-court “in custody” determinations warrant independent review by a federal habeas court, the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion….

 

 

Justice Thomas, with whom The Chief Justice joins, dissenting.

 

Carl Thompson murdered his ex-wife, stabbing her 29 times. He then wrapped her body in chains and a bedspread and tossed the corpse into a water-filled gravel pit. As part of their investigation, police officers in Fairbanks, Alaska, questioned Thompson about his role in the murder, and Thompson confessed. Thompson was repeatedly told that he could leave the interview and was, in fact, permitted to leave at the close of questioning. I believe that the Alaska trial judge “who first decided this question almost a decade ago” was in a far better position than a federal habeas court to determine whether Thompson was “in custody” for purposes of Miranda…. So long as that judgment finds fair support in the record, I would presume that it is correct. I dissent.

 

            To determine whether a person is “in custody” under Miranda, “a court must examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, but ‘the ultimate inquiry is simply whether there [was] a “formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement” of the degree associated with a formal arrest.’”...

 

I agree with the majority that a legal standard must be applied by a state trial judge in making the Miranda custody inquiry. In light of our more recent decisions applying 2254(d), however, I do not agree that the standards articulated in Townsend v. Sain, ... overruled in part by Keeney v. Tamayo-Reyes ... (1992), for distinguishing factual issues from mixed questions of law and fact, dictate a result either way in this case. ...  Because the Miranda custody issue “falls somewhere between a pristine legal standard and a simple historical fact,” we must decide, “as a matter of the sound administration of justice, [which] judicial actor is better positioned . . . to decide the issue in question.” ...

 

The state trial judge is, in my estimation, the best-positioned judicial actor to decide the relatively straightforward and fact-laden question of Miranda custody....  In making the custody determination, the state trial judge must consider a complex of diverse and case-specific factors in an effort to gain an overall sense of the defendant’s situation at the time of the interrogation. These factors include, at a minimum, the location, timing, and length of the interview, the nature and tone of the questioning, whether the defendant came to the place of questioning voluntarily, the use of physical contact or physical restraint, and the demeanor of all of the key players, both during the interview and in any proceedings held in court. In assessing all of these facts, the state trial judge will often take live testimony, consider documentary evidence, and listen to audiotapes or watch videotapes of the interrogation. Assessments of credibility and demeanor are crucial to the ultimate determination, for the trial judge will often have to weigh conflicting accounts of what transpired. The trial judge is also likely to draw inferences, which are similarly entitled to deference, from “physical or documentary evidence or . . . other facts.” ... The Miranda custody inquiry is thus often a matter of “shades and degrees,” ... that requires the state trial judge to make any number of “‘fact-intensive, close calls.’” ...

 

The majority is quite right that the test contains an objective component-how a “reasonable man in the suspect’s shoes would have understood his situation,” ... but this alone cannot be dispositive of whether the determination should be reviewed deferentially. ... “[T]he line between pure facts . . . and . . . the application to them of a legal standard that is as non-technical” as commonsensical” as reasonableness is a faint one.” ... It distorts reality to say that all of the subtle, fact-bound assessments that go into determining what it was like to be “in the suspect’s shoes” simply go out the window when it comes time for the “ultimate inquiry,” ... of how a reasonable person would have assessed the situation. “The state trial court [is] in the unique position, after observing [the defendant] and listening to the evidence presented at trial, to determine whether a reasonable person in [defendant’s] position would have felt free to leave the police station.” ... It is only in light of these case-specific determinations that the reasonable person test can be meaningfully applied. ...

 

For these reasons, I have no doubt that the state trier of fact is best situated to put himself in the suspect’s shoes, and consequently is in a better position to determine what it would have been like for a reasonable man to be in the suspect’s shoes. Federal habeas courts, often reviewing the cold record as much as a decade after the initial determination, are in an inferior position to make this assessment. Though some of the state court’s factual determinations may, perhaps, be reflected on the record, many of the case-specific assessments that comprise the state trial judge’s ultimate determination are subtle, difficult to reduce to writing, and unlikely to be preserved in any meaningful way for review on appeal. “State courts are fully qualified to identify constitutional error and evaluate its prejudicial effect.” ...  “Absent indication to the contrary, state courts should be presumed to have applied federal law as faithfully as federal courts.” ... We insult our colleagues in the States when we imply, as we do today, that state judges are not sufficiently competent and reliable to make a decision as straightforward as whether a person was in custody for purposes of Miranda. ...

 

I also see no reason to remand this case to the Ninth Circuit for further analysis. There is no dispute that Thompson came to the police station voluntarily. There is no dispute that he was repeatedly told he could leave the police station at any time. And it is also clear that he left the police station freely at the end of the interrogation…. Because Thompson cannot establish a Miranda violation even under de novo review, I would resolve that question now, and avoid putting the State of Alaska to the uncertainty and expense of defending for the sixth time in nine years an eminently reasonable judgment secured against a confessed murderer.

 

I respectfully dissent.