Utah Divorce Advice

State v. Butt – Jail is not “custody.”

The Utah Supreme Court has decided that incarceration in county jail is not “custody” for purposes of the Fifth Amendment.

While serving a sentence for theft in the San Juan County Jail, Defendant Eric Butt “mailed rudimentary nude drawings of himself to his five-year-old daughter.” After inspecting the drawings, Deputy Alan Freestone met with the defendant and questioned him. He did not read the defendant his Miranda rights. The defendant admitted sending the drawing to his daughter.

Deputy Freestone later asked Deputy Martha Johnson to ascertain the ages of the defendant’s children. Deputy Johnson approached the defendant in his jail cell and asked him how old his children were. Deputy Johnson did not read the defendant his Miranda rights. The defendant admitted his daughter’s age.

The defendant was charged and convicted with distributing harmful materials to a minor.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his Fifth Amendment rights were violated when he was questioned without being read his Miranda rights.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “no person shall be . . . compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

The Court recognized that, “the Fifth Amendment right to silence is a comprehensive privilege that can be claimed in any proceeding.” The Court further recognized that Miranda warnings are necessary to preserve the defendant’s right to remain silent.

Yet the Court ultimately found that the protections of the Fifth Amendment were not implicated in the defendant’s case. Although incarcerated, the defendant was not “in custody” for purposes of the Fifth Amendment.

It has long been established that, “a person is in custody when the person’s freedom of action is curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest.” There are four considerations that the Court considers when determining whether an individual is “in custody”: “(1) the site of interrogation; (2) whether the investigation focused on the accused; (3) whether the objective indicia of arrest were present; and (4) the length and form of interrogation.”

The traditional analysis seems to establish that the defendant was, “in custody” for purposes of the Fifth Amendment. The interrogation occurred in a jail cell, and the defendant was the sole subject of the investigation.

However, the Court explained that “the traditional analysis is impaired when the suspect is already incarcerated, because the person’s ‘freedom of action’ is already curtailed, and . . . “not all instances of prison questioning fall within the protections of Miranda.”

“When a prisoner is questioned, the determination of custody should focus on all of the features of the interrogation. . . The ultimate question is whether the defendant ‘felt he was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.’ In determining the answer to that question, the Court considered: “the location of the questioning, its duration, statements made during the interview, the presence or absence of physical restraints during the questioning, and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning.”

The Court expressed concern that “no defendant being interviewed in his prison cell would ever feel free to leave.” However, in view of all factors, the defendant was at liberty to terminate the interrogation or remain silent. The court noted that: (1) the defendant was not subjected to coercion; (2) the defendant was not physically restrained beyond his normal living situation; (3) the defendant was not summoned or presented with evidence of his guilt; (4) the officers did not lie to or deceive the defendant; and (5) the interrogations were extremely brief.

Because the Court found that the defendant’s liberty was not restrained beyond his usual status as a jail inmate, they concluded that he was not entitled to Miranda rights.

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