Police Can’t Question People At Home Without Giving Miranda Rights

Here’s an interesting point: Most people would be able to tell you that if you are questioned by police in a police station or in an environment where your ability to leave is otherwise restricted, police must read you your Miranda Rights. This type of questioning is referred to legally as “custodial interrogation.” Miranda Rights, as anyone with a television set knows, are the rights that persons are afforded by the United States Constitution, whenever a person is the subject of custodial interrogation. These rights were first created by a famous U.S. Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona.

But what if a person is questioned in his home by police? Is he entitled to be provided his Miranda Rights in that setting? A federal Appeals Court recently took a look at that, and had an interesting answer. It all started when a U.S. naval officer living in Maine, claimed that when he was questioned by police in his home as part of a crime investigation, he was effectively “in custody”, and that because police did not provide him his Miranda Rights, any statements that he made to them as part of that questioning should be inadmissible in court.

Do you think most people would agree? Well, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit did.

As I always say, the Devil is in the details, so here they are: It seems the defendant sold his personal computer to someone. The buyer found child pornography on the computer, a sex offense in Maine (and also a Massachusetts sex offense,) so he called the local police, who dutifully teamed up with the Maine state computer crime unit to investigate. Because of the fact that the suspect was a naval officer at Maine’s Brunswick Naval Air Station, the police also involved the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS. State police obtained a warrant to search the residence where the suspect lived with his pregnant wife and child, and they made plans to conduct the search at a time when they knew that the suspect would be on duty at the naval station. Meanwhile, NCIS staffers asked the suspect’s commanding officer to order him to report to them at the base, where they instructed him to go directly home. They gave the suspect no explanation.

When the suspect arrived home, an officer told him that he was not going to be arrested and reassured him that the police were concerned not so much with the fact that child pornography was on his computer, as where it was downloaded from. When questioned, the suspect first denied that he had downloaded the material, but he eventually admitted he had. After about an hour of questioning, the police asked the suspect if he would come to the police station for more formal questioning. He agreed. Once there, he was advised of his Miranda Rights, per standard police procedure. Notwithstanding, he agreed to talk and signed a waiver of his rights.

As a result of questioning, he was charged with unlawful possession of child pornography. His attorney filed a Motion to suppress his statements to police while in his home, and when the motion was denied, he pleaded guilty. Notwithstanding, as part of his plea, he reserved the right to appeal the court’s decision denying his motion to suppress the statements he made to police in his home. A federal appeals agreed with him, and reversed the lower court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress his statements. The court ruled that “We think the record speaks with a fair measure of clarity in showing that the combined law enforcement authorities [involved] deliberately planned to subject [the defendant] to unwarned questioning under conditions that would make it difficult for him to avoid them.” “We … infer that [the defendant]’s situation at the house would have left any member of the armed services reasonably feeling that he lacked free choice to extricate himself, and sufficiently compelled to answer to authority.” As a Boston, Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I can tell you that the key to this reasoning is that here, the defendant had been ordered by his military superiors at the naval base to go to his home, where police were waiting for him as part of an orchestrated plan. The court didn’t feel that a member of the service in the defendant’s position would feel free to leave his own house under those circumstances: “To begin with, we think [the defendant] was in custody at the house under conditions that required the Miranda warnings, the want of which compels suppression of the statements given there. The dispositive basis for our [decision] goes to the weight to be assigned to the influence of military authority on someone in [the defendant’s] position when subject to the order he was given on the morning he was questioned.” [I]t is fair to say that whenever a member of the services is questioned in circumstances mandated by a superior’s order, he is in the situation that Miranda was meant to address, where the line between voluntary and involuntary response is at least so blurred that the Fifth Amendment guarantee is in jeopardy.”

Given the offense that was involved in this case, a lot of people might find this decision objectionable. I can understand that. But why is this case important? First, because as I said above, a lot of Massachusetts residents now have a family member serving in some branch of the armed forces – whether full-time or National Guard. That exposes them to potential interrogation scenarios such as existed in this case. Second, even if someone isn’t in the military, if police question someone at their home within an atmosphere that leads the person being questioned to believe that he is not free to leave the interview, that situation likely triggers Miranda Warnings. If those rights are not provided, statements made to police while in your home may be inadmissible in court. Third, Miranda Rights are among rhe most important and admirable of criminal law rights in America, and once they are chipped away at, we’re all at risk of losing those rights.

Always remember: If you are ever questioned by police, ask if you are free to leave or otherwise terminate the interview. In general, when questioned by police in a criminal matter, it is best to have a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer present.