516 U.S. 99 (1995), 94-6615, Thompson v. Keohane

Docket Nº:Case No. 94-6615
Citation:516 U.S. 99, 116 S.Ct. 457, 133 L.Ed.2d 383, 64 U.S.L.W. 4027
Party Name:THOMPSON v. KEOHANE, WARDEN, et al.
Case Date:November 29, 1995
Court:United States Supreme Court

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516 U.S. 99 (1995)

116 S.Ct. 457, 133 L.Ed.2d 383, 64 U.S.L.W. 4027




Case No. 94-6615

United States Supreme Court

November 29, 1995

Argued October 11, 1995



During a two-hour, tape-recorded session at Alaska state trooper headquarters, petitioner Thompson confessed he had killed his former wife. Thompson maintained that the troopers gained his confession without according him the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436. The Alaska trial court denied his motion to suppress the confession, however, ruling that he was not "in custody" for Miranda purposes, therefore the troopers were not required to inform him of his Miranda rights. After a trial at which the prosecution played the tape-recorded confession, the jury found Thompson guilty of first-degree murder, and the Court of Appeals of Alaska affirmed his conviction. The Federal District Court denied Thompson's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Both courts held that a state court's ruling that a defendant was not "in custody" for Miranda purposes qualifies as a "fact" determination entitled to a presumption of correctness under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).


State-court "in custody" rulings, made to determine whether Miranda warnings are due, do not qualify for a presumption of correctness under § 2254(d). Such rulings do not resolve "a factual issue." Instead, they resolve mixed questions of law and fact and therefore warrant independent review by the federal habeas court. Pp. 107-116.

(a) Section 2254(d) declares that, in a federal habeas proceeding instituted by a person in custody pursuant to a state-court judgment, the state court's determination of "a factual issue" ordinarily "shall be presumed to be correct." This Court has held that "basic, primary, or historical facts" are the "factual issue[s]" to which the statutory presumption of correctness dominantly relates. See, e. g., Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 112. Nonetheless, the proper characterization of a question as one of fact or law is sometimes slippery. Two lines of decisions compose the Court's § 2254(d) law/fact jurisprudence. In several cases, the Court has classified as "factual issues" within § 2254(d)'s compass questions extending beyond the determination of "what happened." The resolution of the issues involved in the S.C. ses, notably competency to stand trial and juror impartiality, depends heavily on the trial court's superior ability to appraise witness credibility and demeanor. On the

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other hand, the Court has recognized the "uniquely legal dimension" presented by issues such as the voluntariness of a confession and the effectiveness of counsel's assistance and has ranked these as questions of law for § 2254(d) purposes. "What happened" determinations in these cases warrant a presumption of correctness, but "the ultimate question," the Court has declared, remains outside § 2254(d)'s domain and is "a matter for independent federal determination." Ibid. Pp. 107-112.

(b) The ultimate "in custody" determination for Miranda purposes fits within the latter class of cases. Two discrete inquiries are essential to the determination whether there was "a 'formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement' of the degree associated with a formal arrest." California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1125. The first inquiry— i. e., what circumstances surrounded the interrogation—is distinctly factual and state-court findings in response to that inquiry attract a presumption of correctness under § 2254(d). The second inquiry— i. e., would a reasonable person have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave—calls for application of the controlling legal standard to the historical facts and thus presents a "mixed question of law and fact" qualifying for independent review. The practical considerations that have prompted the Court to type questions like juror bias and competency to stand trial as "factual issue[s]" do not dominate "in custody" inquiries. In such inquiries, the trial court's superior capacity to resolve credibility issues is not the foremost factor. Notably absent from the trial court's purview is any first-person vantage on whether a defendant, when interrogated, was so situated as to be "in custody" for Miranda purposes. Thus, once the historical facts are resolved, the state court is not in an appreciably better position than the federal habeas court to make the ultimate determination of the consistency of the law enforcement officer's conduct with the federal Miranda warning requirement. Furthermore, classifying "in custody" as a determination qualifying for independent review should serve legitimate law enforcement interests as effectively as it serves to ensure protection of the right against self-incrimination. As the Court's decisions bear out, the law declaration aspect of independent review potentially may guide police, unify precedent, and stabilize the law. Pp. 112-116.

34 F.3d 1073, vacated and remanded.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., joined, post, p. 116.

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Julie R. O'Sullivan, by appointment of the Court, 513 U.S. 1137, argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

Cynthia M. Hora, Assistant Attorney General of Alaska, argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief was Bruce M. Botelho, Attorney General, pro se. [*]

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.

During a two-hour, tape-recorded session at Alaska state trooper headquarters, petitioner Carl Thompson confessed that he killed his former wife. Thompson's confession was placed in evidence at the ensuing Alaska state-court trial,

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and he was convicted of first-degree murder. Challenging his conviction in a federal habeas corpus proceeding, Thompson maintained that the Alaska troopers gained his confession without according him the warnings Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), requires: that he could remain silent; that anything he said could be used against him in court; and that he was entitled to an attorney, either retained or appointed.

Miranda warnings are due only when a suspect interrogated by the police is "in custody." The state trial and appellate courts determined that Thompson was not "in custody" when he confessed. The statute governing federal habeas corpus proceedings, 28 U.S.C. § 2254, directs that, ordinarily, state-court fact findings "shall be presumed to be correct." § 2254(d). The question before this Court is whether the state-court determination that Thompson was not "in custody" when he confessed is a finding of fact warranting a presumption of correctness, or a matter of law calling for independent review in federal court. We hold that the issue whether a suspect is "in custody," and therefore entitled to Miranda warnings, presents a mixed question of law and fact qualifying for independent review.


On September 10, 1986, two moose hunters discovered the body of a dead woman floating in a gravel pit lake on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska. The woman had been stabbed 29 times. Notified by the hunters, the Alaska state troopers issued a press release seeking assistance in identifying the body. Thompson called the troopers on September 11 to inform them that his former wife, Dixie Thompson, fit the description in the press release and that she had been missing for about a month. Through a dental examination, the troopers conclusively established that the corpse was Dixie Thompson. On September 15, a trooper called

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Thompson and asked him to come to headquarters, purportedly to identify personal items the troopers thought belonged to Dixie Thompson. It is now undisputed, however, that the trooper's primary reason for contacting Thompson was to question him about the murder.

Thompson drove to the troopers' headquarters in his pickup truck and, upon arriving, immediately identified the items as Dixie's. He remained at headquarters, however, for two more hours while two unarmed troopers continuously questioned him in a small interview room and tape-recorded the exchange. The troopers did not inform Thompson of his Miranda rights. Although they constantly assured Thompson he was free to leave, they also told him repeatedly that they knew he had killed his former wife. Informing Thompson that execution of a search warrant was underway at his home, and that his truck was about to be searched pursuant to another warrant, the troopers asked questions that invited a confession. App. 43-79.[1] Eventually, Thompson told the troopers he killed Dixie.

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As promised, the troopers permitted Thompson to leave, but impounded his truck. Left without transportation, Thompson accepted the troopers' offer of a ride to his friend's

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house. Some two hours later, the troopers arrested Thompson and charged him with first-degree murder.

The Alaska trial court, without holding an evidentiary hearing, denied Thompson's motion to suppress his September 15 statements. Tr. 118 (Dec. 12, 1986); Tr. 142 (Mar. 18,1987). Deciding the motion on the papers submitted, the trial court ruled that Thompson was not "in custody" for Miranda purposes, therefore the troopers had no obligation to inform him of his Miranda rights. App. 8-9.[2] Applying an objective test to resolve the "in custody" question, the court asked whether " 'a reasonable person would feel he was not free to leave and break off police questioning.' " Id., at 7 (quoting Hunter v. State, 590 P.2d 888, 895 (Alaska 1979)). These features, the court indicated, were key: Thompson arrived at the station in response to a trooper's request; two...

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