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Inmates weren’t ‘in custody’ during prison interview

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//December 2, 2021

Inmates weren’t ‘in custody’ during prison interview

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//December 2, 2021

Even though incarcerated persons interviewed about safety following a stabbing were questioned in a separate location, isolated from the general prison population, restrained and not advised that they were free to leave, because of the totality of the circumstances, including the brevity of the interviews and the administrative purpose for holding them, the prisoners were not “in custody” for Miranda purposes.


Julio Chavez and German Hernandez are charged with conspiring to commit murder and attempting to commit murder. The defendants have filed motions to suppress statements made to prison officers as part of an investigation into a stabbing that occurred at USP Lee.

Specifically, the defendants challenge statements attributed to them in an inmate investigative report, which was compiled by special investigation services, or SIS, agent Canfield following his investigation of the incident. The defendants contend that because they were not given Miranda warnings, their statements are inadmissible. Evidentiary hearings were held on the motions on Oct. 27, 2021, and Oct. 29, 2021. The sole witness was SIS agent Canfield. His inmate investigative report was also introduced, without objection.


Whether an inmate is “in custody” is based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation and whether the inmate was subjected to “more than the usual restraint.” Relevant factors include the purpose of the interrogation, the degree of constraints normally present in the prison facility, the physical surroundings of the interrogation, the length of the interrogation, the extent to which the inmate is confronted with evidence of guilt, the relationship between the law enforcement officer and the individual inmate and the use of any additional pressures to detain the inmate in the situation.


Based upon the totality of the circumstances, and crediting Canfield’s testimony, the court finds that the defendants were not “in custody” for Miranda purposes. The purpose of the interview was primarily about safety and security of the general prison population at USP Lee and throughout BOP facilities, which strongly cuts against this being custodial interrogation. The questions focused primarily on whether the dispute between the various gangs could be fixed, and whether the inmates could safely interact if released back into the general population. In other words, these interviews were to support a critical administration function of the prison — inmate and staff safety. Moreover, each of the defendants were questioned for a brief period, approximately five to ten minutes.

Even though Canfield knew that the defendants were involved in the incident, having previously viewed the video recording, the record does not indicate that the defendants were ever confronted with any evidence of their guilt or personal involvement in the January 15 incident. Rather, they were questioned in roughly the same manner as all the other inmates during the investigation. Only two or three interviewers were in the room, none of whom were armed, and everyone remained standing during the interview, which inherently created a less coercive environment.

The defendants emphasize the fact that they were restrained, with their hands cuffed behind their back, and confined to their cells without access to common areas. They argue that the government cannot avoid Miranda merely by subjecting all inmates to the same heightened restrictions. But the level of restraint is just one factor. In this case, the level of restraint does not point strongly in either direction, as the entire facility was locked down and all inmates were subject to the constraints.

Similarly, the defendants argue that the fact that all inmates were questioned in the same manner should not weaken Miranda’s protections. The mere fact that all inmates were interviewed in the same manner, however, is not itself conclusive of the custody determination. Rather, it provides some context for analyzing the factors relevant to the inquiry — that is, it expounds upon the “nature of the questioning.” Here, the brevity and uniform manner of the questioning are probative of the primary purpose of the questioning and indicate the situation was inherently less coercive, both of which point against Miranda custody.

On the other hand, this court recognizes that the defendants’ interviewers were SIS staff, who are tasked, among other duties, with investigating incidents for prosecution. The defendants were also questioned in a separate location, isolated away from their cells and the general prison population and they were never advised that they were free to leave the interview. Each of these factors favor this being custodial interrogation. Nevertheless, considering all the circumstances, this court finds that these facts are outweighed by the others, leading to this court’s finding against Miranda custody.

Defendants’ motions to suppress denied.

United States v. Chavez, Case No. 2:21-cr-00001, Nov. 15, 2021. WDVA at Big Stone Gap (Jones). VLW 021-3-519. 12 pp.

VLW 021-3-519

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