Wyoming Supreme Court Clarifies When Miranda Advisements are Required

Source: The Library of Congress, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons;  Selected from “The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings,” published by the New York Times shortly after the 1919 armistice

As discussed in this post, police are only required to give suspects those classic Miranda advisements that we’ve all heard on TV if the suspect is “in custody.” On December 13, 2022, the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed the murder conviction of Mario Mills and remanded Mr. Mills’s case for a new trial because it concluded the trial court incorrectly determined when Mr. Mills was “in custody” such that the relevant law enforcement officer should have given Mr. Mills the Miranda advisements.

The complex opinion of the Court, written by Chief Justice Kate M. Fox, illustrates the nuanced nature of Miranda and when law enforcement must give Miranda advisements. Still, that decision helpfully summarizes the general rules surrounding when a person is “in custody” and requires Miranda advisements and clarifies when strong evidence of serious wrongdoing and pressure from law enforcement and a suspect’s confession may transform a noncustodial situation into a custodial environment. The full opinion may be read here:

In general, if a person is “in custody” and requires Miranda advisements, but law enforcement does not make these advisements, then the suspect’s non-Mirandized statements must be excluded from the evidence that may be presented to the jury at trial. See Schwartz v. State, 2021 WY 48, ¶ 10, 483 P.3d 861, 864 (Wyo. 2021)

Whether a suspect is “in custody” and requires Miranda advisements turns on whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would consider himself in police custody.” Mills, ¶ 39 (quoting Schwartz, ¶ 10, 483 P.3d at 864). This means that a suspect’s personal feelings or thoughts about his circumstances as well as an officer’s beliefs about the situation are irrelevant to the analysis. See Engdahl v. State, 2014 WY 76, ¶ 19, 327 P.3d 114, 119 (Wyo. 2014). Instead, to make the “in custody” determination, Wyoming courts rely on a multifactor test that directs them to examine the “totality of the circumstances” through an objective lens. Mills, ¶ 40. That is all fine well and good, but the test really demands a case-by-case analysis and no one case necessarily answers the “in custody” question for the next case. See id. at ¶ 41.

Still, the Mills opinion clarifies that a person is more likely to be “in custody” when a law enforcement officer communicates his feelings or beliefs about the strength of the evidence against a suspect to the suspect. Id. at ¶ 52. “A reasonable person confronted in this manner would understand that law enforcement had evidence he committed a serious crime. That understanding is a factor that weighs significantly in favor of finding custody.” Id. at ¶ 54. The Court quoted the Vermont Supreme Court as follows:

A “reasonable person understands that the police ordinarily will not set free a suspect when there is evidence strongly suggesting that the person is guilty of a serious crime.”

Mills, ¶ 54 (quoting State v. Muntean, 12 A.3d 518, 528 (Vt. 2010)).

Now, the Mills decision does not mean that every time law enforcement confronts a suspect with strong evidence that he committed a serious crime the suspect is “in custody.” For example, the Mills opinion carefully recites the Wyoming Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Hannon v. State, 2004 WY 8, 84 P.3d 320 (Wyo. 2004), where it concluded that “a suspect was not in custody despite being repeatedly confronted and pressed with evidence against him.” Mills, ¶ 59 (analyzing Hannon, ¶ 48, 84 P.3d at 339). However, the Mills decision distinguishes Hannon by noting that, in Hannon, “steps were taken to ameliorate the effects of the accusatory questions.” Mills, ¶ 60.

Specifically, “Mr. Hannon was told not only that he was not under arrest, but also that he would not be arrested that day. Additionally, he was advised he did not have to answer questions and was free to leave at any time. Finally, he was in fact permitted to leave the station after the interview.” Id. By contrast, in the Mills case, after a detective confronted Mr. Mills repeatedly with strong evidence of his having killed another person, Mr. Mills was never released, informed he would not be arrested, or told he did not have to answer any questions. See id. at ¶¶ 61-63.

The Mills opinion also addressed the effect of a suspect’s confession on the “in custody” determination. See id. at ¶¶ 65-70. At the outset, it noted that the United States Supreme Court has “never held that a suspect’s confession to a crime will in itself transform an interview into a custodial interrogation.” Id. at ¶ 66. Still, it noted that a suspect’s confession is “a factor in the totality of the circumstances test.” Id. (collecting cases). To this end, the Mills opinion quoted from the Wyoming Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Kolb v. State, 930 P.2d 1238 (Wyo. 1996):

After Mr. Kolb confessed to the killing, he was in custody under Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. at ––––, 116 S.Ct. at 459. A reasonable person who confessed to a killing while being interviewed at a police station would not feel free to terminate the interview and leave the station.

Drawing from this thread, the Mills decision concludes that a suspect’s confession has a greater impact on the “in custody” determination if the suspect confesses to a more serious offense. Id. at ¶ 67. In other words, “the severity of the crime confessed to affects the weight we attribute to this factor.” Muntean, 12 A.3d at 529; see also McCrory v. State, 643 S.W.2d 725, 733 (Tex. Crim. App. 1982) (“[I]t strains credulity to suggest appellant himself thought he could admit commission of this capital murder to [officer], shake hands around, glance at his watch as he informed the group he was late for another appointment, and walk out the door!”).

*******

In sum, the Mills opinion serves as an important refresher on the rules of the road for Miranda advisements in Wyoming. It also punctuates the importance of whether a person is “in custody.” To that end, it highlights how information law enforcement shares with a suspect during questioning and whether a suspect confesses during that question may transform an ordinary, noncustodial environment to a custodial, Miranda-protected environment.

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