When Does Handcuffing Constitute Custody for Purposes of Miranda?
By Jayme W. Holcomb, J.D., Ed.D., and Jayhoun Rezai, J.D.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, persons considered to be in custody must be formally informed of their rights prior to interrogation.1 This article focuses on the role that handcuffs play in determining whether a subject is in custody for purposes of officers having to give Miranda warnings and how courts have addressed this important issue.
Custody and Miranda
In Miranda the U.S. Supreme Court stated the following regarding the custodial interrogation requirement: “By custodial interrogation, we mean 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.”2 The Court has revisited the subject of custody for purposes of Miranda in a number of post-Miranda decisions. More particularly, in California v. Beheler, the Court noted that “[a]lthough the circumstances of each case must certainly influence a determination of whether a suspect is ‘in custody’ for purposes of receiving Miranda protection, the ultimate inquiry is simply whether there is a ‘formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement’ of the degree associated with a formal arrest.”3
To determine whether an individual is in custody for purposes of Miranda when not under formal arrest, courts consider the totality of the circumstances.4 The application of handcuffs is a factor that courts will consider as part of the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis. Therefore, it is helpful to examine the role handcuffing plays in determining whether a subject is in custody for purposes of officers having to give Miranda warnings.
Use of Handcuffs May Constitute Custody
The Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals in the Second and Eighth Circuits have found that handcuffing, among other factors, can establish custody for the purposes of Miranda even when an official arrest has not been made. In United States v. Newton, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that handcuffing the defendant placed him in custody for purposes of Miranda.5
Newton involved an individual who was on parole after serving time in prison for three felony convictions, including armed robbery and drug trafficking.6 Newton had agreed to allow his parole officer to visit and search his home as part of his parole conditions. The New York State Division of Parole received information from Newton’s mother that he, who was living with her, had threatened her and her husband and kept a gun in a shoe box by the door of her home. Newton’s parole officer, along with other parole officers and three New York City police officers, went to Newton’s home to conduct a search.
Dr. Holcomb heads the Legal Instruction Section at the DEA Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Mr. Rezai is an assistant district attorney at the King’s County District Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, New York.
Upon arrival, officers handcuffed Newton in the hallway without reading him his Miranda rights. The parole officer explained to Newton that he was not under arrest but was being restrained for safety reasons. During the search officers asked Newton if he had any contraband. Newton indicated that he had a “two and two” in a shoebox, and officers discovered a .22-caliber automatic firearm with ammunition in a shoebox.7 Newton subsequently was convicted in federal court for being a felon in possession of a firearm.8
On appeal, Newton argued that the trial court had erred by admitting statements he made in response to questions from the officers before Miranda warnings were given.9 The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded that Newton was in custody for purposes of Miranda because he was handcuffed by the officers.10 The court stated that to be in custody for purposes of Miranda, reasonable persons would have to believe that they were under formal arrest or were restrained in freedom of movement to the degree associated with a formal arrest.11
To determine whether reasonable persons would believe themselves to be under formal arrest or restrained comparable to formal arrest, the court stated that two factors must be examined. “The first is whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s shoes would have understood that his detention was not likely to be ‘temporary and brief.’ The second is whether a person stopped under the circumstances at issue would feel that he was ‘completely at the mercy of the police.’”12 The court indicated that the use of handcuffs would make ordinary people think that their detention would not be temporary and brief. Thus, the individuals would believe they were under total control of the police and restrained to a degree normally associated with a formal arrest and, therefore, in custody.13 The court concluded that “handcuffing Newton, though reasonable to the officers’ investigatory purpose under the Fourth Amendment, nevertheless placed him in custody for purposes of Miranda.”14
United States v. Cowan involved the execution of a search warrant at an apartment where officers believed drug dealers were doing business.15 Officers went to this apartment and found a number of adults, including the defendant, Cowan, and two children. Cowan and others were handcuffed by the officers. A detective frisked Cowan and obtained identification from his wallet. The detective then asked Cowan how he got to the apartment. Cowan said that he came by bus from Chicago. The detective felt a set of car keys in Cowan’s pocket, removed them, and asked why Cowan carried car keys if he had taken the bus. Cowan responded that these keys were to his Cadillac, which he did not want his girlfriend to have.
The detective believed that Cowan’s response was untruthful because he recognized the keys were not for a Cadillac. During the search of the apartment, the officers found illegal drugs. The detective removed the handcuffs from Cowan and informed him that he would be free to leave if the keys did not match any vehicle in the parking lot. The detective pressed the alarm on Cowan’s key fob, which set off the car alarm of a vehicle in the lot. Officers then arrested Cowan.
The detective informed Cowan that he would no longer be permitted to leave. The police then used a drug dog to sniff Cowan’s car. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs in the car. The officers searched the car and discovered crack cocaine. They took Cowan inside, informed him of his Miranda rights, and asked about the crack cocaine they found. Cowan gave incriminating responses, claiming that he drove the crack cocaine from Chicago to Davenport for $300.16 Upon Cowan’s motion to suppress his statements, the district court found that the detective’s questions about how Cowan arrived at the apartment and why he had car keys were asked prior to the administration of Miranda warnings and, thus, violated the Fifth Amendment.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that a suspect could be considered in custody for Miranda purposes if a reasonable person in Cowan’s position would not have felt free to terminate the interrogation and leave. The court in Cowan explained:
We have identified six non-exclusive factors for determining whether a suspect is in custody: (1) whether police told the suspect that “the questioning was voluntary,” the suspect could leave or ask the officers to do so, “or that the suspect was not considered under arrest”; (2) whether the suspect’s movement was restrained during the questioning; (3) “whether the suspect initiated contact with authorities or voluntarily acquiesced to official requests to respond to questions”; (4) whether police used strong-arm tactics or deceptive stratagems during questioning; (5) “whether the atmosphere of the questioning was police dominated”; and (6) whether the suspect was arrested at the end of the questioning.17
Of these factors, the court believed that the critical inquiry was “not whether the interview took place in a coercive or police-dominated environment but, rather, whether the defendant’s freedom to depart was restricted in any way.”18 Based on these factors, the court concluded that Cowan was in custody because a reasonable person in his position would not have felt free to end the questioning and leave based on the facts that he was handcuffed, detained, and patted down; was not told he was free to leave or abstain from questions; and did not volunteer answers to the questions.19
Because the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit relied on “whether the defendant’s freedom to depart was restricted in any way,” it is apparent that the handcuffing, while one of multiple factors that can establish custody for purposes of Miranda, played a vital role in the analysis, even when an arrest had not officially been made.20 The court affirmed the district court’s suppression of Cowan’s statement about why he had keys if he arrived by bus.
Use of Handcuffs May Not Constitute Custody
The Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals in the Ninth and Fourth Circuits have indicated that handcuffing a suspect does not necessarily mean that the person is in custody for purposes of Miranda. In United States v. Bautista, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit noted that handcuffing a suspect does not necessarily dictate a finding of custody for purposes of Miranda but was a reasonable measure to ensure the safety of the officer or the public.21 In Bautista three men had robbed a bank. Officers spotted Bautista and another individual about one-half of a mile away from the bank and three and one-half blocks away from the suspected getaway car. The officers noted that Bautista and his accomplice matched the descriptions of the robbers, so they stopped them for questioning.
As the police officers exited their car, Bautista voluntarily informed them that he had just gone to a nearby home and asked the woman who answered the door if she could call a cab for him. One of the officers frisked both men for weapons, but none were found.22 The officer also handcuffed both men. Leaving Bautista and his associate with his partner, the officer went to the woman’s house to verify Bautista’s story.23 The woman verified the story, but reported that Bautista had claimed his car had broken down. Bautista denied ever having a car.
Bautista and his associate then were separated, and officers asked each suspect a series of questions. Both individuals gave the police inconsistent answers because they did not know each other’s names, the names of the streets, who dropped them off, who they were meeting, or the color of the car that dropped them off. Bautista also switched his story, claiming that he was, in fact, dropped off to make illicit drug purchases.
Approximately 10 minutes after the initial stop, the officers told Bautista and his accomplice that they were under arrest. The suspects were taken to police headquarters, searched, and given Miranda warnings. Police discovered several “bait bills,” which are used to identify stolen money, and both suspects confessed to the robbery.24 On appeal, the defendants argued that they were in custody when they were questioned separately, so the officers’ failure to give them Miranda warnings required suppression of the statements made during the stop, as well as later at the police station.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated that Miranda warnings are a necessary precursor to interrogation during a Terry stop if a suspect is taken into custody or the questioning takes place in a police-dominated or compelling atmosphere.25 The court indicated that even though Terry stops inherently may be somewhat coercive, they typically do not involve the type of police-dominated or compelling atmosphere necessitating Miranda warnings. The court further stated that Miranda warnings are only required when there has been such a restriction on persons’ freedom as to render them in custody.
The court found the following factors important to the custody analysis: “the language used by the officer to summon the individual, the extent to which he or she is confronted with evidence of guilt, the physical surroundings of the interrogation, the duration of the detention and the degree of pressure applied to detain the individual.”26 The court further indicated that these objective factors determine whether a reasonable, innocent person in such circumstances would conclude that after the brief questioning he or she would not be free to leave and was, therefore, in custody for Miranda purposes.
The court stated that the defendants in Bautista were not in custody during their separate questioning because they were not confronted by evidence of their guilt. Further, the court found that neither the language used by the officers to summon the defendants, the physical surroundings, nor the duration of the detention could be considered coercive.27 The court also noted that the only difference between this situation and a routine Terry stop was the use of the handcuffs; however, the court stated that the use of handcuffs alone does not mean that a subject is in custody for purposes of Miranda.28
In United States v. Leshuk, the defendants sought to suppress statements they made after their initial confrontation by deputies at a marijuana cultivation site and prior to being given Miranda warnings.29 In Leshuk, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit indicated that Miranda is meant to protect statements that a suspect makes during custodial interrogations and further stated that a suspect is in custody for the purposes of Miranda “if the suspect has been formally arrested or if he is questioned under circumstances in which his freedom of action is curtailed ‘of the degree associated with a formal arrest.’”30 The court cautioned that this test does not necessarily convert a Terry stop into custody for the purposes of Miranda. The court indicated the circumstances of the interrogation should be viewed objectively, rather than through the subjective views harbored by the interrogating officers or the person being questioned.31 Therefore, the court stated that instead of looking to whether the stop objectively restricts an individual’s freedom, it is important to look at whether the stop lasted no longer than necessary to verify or dispel the officer’s suspicion.
The court concluded that Leshuk was not in custody for the purposes of Miranda until the officers discovered the marijuana and informed him that he was under arrest.32 Although the deputies in Leshuk did not handcuff the defendants during the course of the encounter, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stated in dicta that in considering the Fourth Amendment standards regarding seizures, “we have concluded that drawing weapons, handcuffing a suspect, placing a suspect in a patrol car for questioning, or using or threatening to use force does not necessarily elevate a lawful stop into a custodial arrest for Miranda purposes.”33
The role that handcuffing plays in determining whether a subject is in custody for purposes of officers having to give Miranda warnings is an important issue for law enforcement officers to consider to prevent the possible suppression of a subject’s statement due to a Miranda violation. Courts analyze the totality of the circumstances to determine whether an individual is in custody for purposes of Miranda. This article has examined how courts have viewed handcuffing as part of the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis. Because courts differ on when the use of handcuffs constitutes custody for purposes of giving Miranda warnings, law enforcement officers should consult with their legal advisors regarding the status of the law in their jurisdictions pertaining to this issue.
Law enforcement officers of other than federal jurisdiction who are interested in this article should consult their legal advisors. Some police procedures ruled permissible under federal constitutional law are of questionable legality under state law or are not permitted at all.
The opinions and views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Rezai and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.