511 U.S. 318 (1994), 93-5770, Stansbury v. California

Docket Nº:No. 93-5770
Citation:511 U.S. 318, 114 S.Ct. 1526, 128 L.Ed.2d 293, 62 U.S.L.W. 4279
Case Date:April 26, 1994
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 318

511 U.S. 318 (1994)

114 S.Ct. 1526, 128 L.Ed.2d 293, 62 U.S.L.W. 4279




No. 93-5770

United States Supreme Court

April 26, 1994

Argued March 30, 1994



When California police first questioned petitioner Stansbury as a possible witness to the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl, they had another suspect. However, Stansbury became a suspect during the interview, when he told police that, on the night of the murder, he drove a car matching the one seen where the girl's body was found. After he also admitted to prior convictions for rape, kidnaping, and child molestation, officers stopped the interview, advised him of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, and arrested him. The trial court denied his pretrial motion to suppress his statements to the police, reasoning that he was not "in custody" for purposes of Miranda until the officers began to suspect him. He was convicted of, inter alia, first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In affirming, the State Supreme Court concluded that one of the relevant factors in determining whether Stansbury was in custody was whether the investigation was focused on him. Agreeing that suspicion focused on him only when he mentioned the car, the court found that Miranda did not bar the admission of statements made before that point.


Because the initial determination of custody depends on the objective circumstances of the interrogation, an officer's subjective and undisclosed view concerning whether the interrogee is a suspect is irrelevant to the assessment whether that person is in custody. See, e.g., Beckwith v. United States, 425 U.S. 341. Numerous statements in the State Supreme Court's opinion are open to the interpretation that the court regarded the officers' subjective beliefs regarding Stansbury's status as a suspect as significant in and of themselves, rather than as relevant only to the extent they influenced the objective conditions surrounding his interrogation. The State Supreme Court should consider in the first instance whether objective circumstances show that Stansbury was in custody during the entire interrogation.

4 Cal.4th 1017, 846 P.2d 756, reversed and remanded.

Robert M. Westberg, by appointment of the Court, 510 U.S. 1009, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were David S. Winton and Joseph A. Hearst.

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Aileen Bunney, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General, George Williamson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Ronald A. Bass, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Ronald E. Niver, Deputy Attorney General.[*]

Per Curiam.

This case concerns the rules for determining whether a person being questioned by law enforcement officers is held in custody, and thus entitled to the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). We hold, not for the first time, that an officer's subjective and undisclosed view concerning whether the person being interrogated is a suspect is irrelevant to the assessment whether the person is in custody.


Ten-year-old Robyn Jackson disappeared from a playground in Baldwin Park, California, at around 6:30 p.m. on September 28, 1982. Early the next morning, about 10 miles away in Pasadena, Andrew Zimmerman observed a large man emerge from a turquoise American sedan and throw something into a nearby flood control channel. Zimmerman called the police, who arrived at the scene and discovered the girl's body in the channel. There was evidence that she had been raped, and the cause of death was determined to be asphyxia complicated by blunt force trauma to the head.

Lieutenant Thomas Johnston, a detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, investigated the homicide.

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From witnesses interviewed on the day the body was discovered, he learned that Robyn had talked to two ice cream truck drivers, one being petitioner Robert Edward Stansbury, in the hours before her disappearance. Given these contacts, Johnston thought Stansbury and the other driver might have some connection with the homicide or knowledge thereof, but for reasons unimportant here Johnston considered only the other driver to be a leading suspect. After the suspect driver was brought in for interrogation, Johnston asked Officer Lee of the Baldwin Park Police Department to contact Stansbury to see if he would come in for questioning as a potential witness.

Lee and three other plainclothes officers arrived at Stansbury's trailer home at about 11:00 that evening. The officers surrounded the door and Lee knocked. When Stansbury answered, Lee told him the officers were investigating a homicide to which Stansbury was a possible witness and asked if he would accompany them to the police station to answer some questions. Stansbury agreed to the interview and accepted a ride to the station in the front seat of Lee's police car.

At the station, Lieutenant Johnston, in the presence of another officer, questioned Stansbury about his whereabouts and activities during the afternoon and evening of September 28. Neither Johnston nor the other officer issued Miranda warnings. Stansbury told the officers (among other things) that on the evening of the 28th he spoke with the victim at about 6:00, returned to his trailer home after work at 9:00, and left the trailer at about midnight in his housemate's turquoise, American-made car. This last detail aroused Johnston's suspicions, as the turquoise car matched the description of the one Andrew Zimmerman had observed in Pasadena. When Stansbury, in response to a further question, admitted to prior convictions for rape, kidnaping, and child molestation, Johnston terminated the interview and another officer advised Stansbury of his Miranda rights.

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Stansbury declined to make further statements, requested an attorney, and was arrested. Respondent State of California charged Stansbury with first-degree murder and other crimes.

Stansbury filed a pretrial motion to suppress all statements made at the station, and the evidence discovered as a result of those statements. The trial court denied the motion in relevant part, ruling that Stansbury was not "in custody"—and thus not entitled to Miranda warnings—until he mentioned that he had taken his housemate's turquoise car for a midnight drive. Before that stage of the interview, the trial court reasoned, "the focus in [Lieutenant Johnston's] mind certainly was on the other ice cream [truck] driver," Tr. 2368; only "after Mr. Stansbury made the comment . . . describing the . . . turquoise-colored automobile" did Johnston's suspicions "shif[t] to Mr. Stansbury," ibid. Based upon its conclusion that Stansbury was not in custody until Johnston's suspicions had focused on him, the trial court permitted the prosecution to introduce in its case in chief the statements Stansbury made before that time. At trial, the jury convicted Stansbury of first-degree murder, rape, kidnaping, and lewd act on a child under the age of 14, and fixed the penalty for the first-degree murder at death.

The California Supreme Court affirmed. Before determining whether Stansbury was in custody during the interview at the station, the court set out what it viewed as the...

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