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Vermont Supreme Court Reviews Definition of “Custody” for Miranda Warnings When Probations Officers Interview Their Probationers Following a New Offense

In State of Vermont v. John Powers, 2016 VT 110, No. 2015-076 (Oct. 14, 2016), the Supreme Court reviewed an interlocutory appeal in which the State challenged the trial court’s suppression of statements made to a probation officer by Defendant while on furlough, resulting in new charges, but when the Defendant was not given a Miranda warning before he made the statements.

Issue: Defendant was on long-term community furlough following a conviction for forcible sexual assault on a thirteen-year-old girl. Defendant had two meetings a week with his probation officer and was at the highest level of supervision, meaning that officers were allowed to visit Defendant in his residence at any time to inspect it for any violations. In the current case, a neighbor reported to Defendant’s probation officers that police were at Defendant’s apartment building to investigate an allegation that Defendant had drilled holes in the bedroom of his apartment to view the teenaged daughter of his neighbor through the wall. Immediately following the call, probation officers arrived at Defendant’s apartment to inspect the premises for the conditions described, which would amount to both a violation of his furlough and the commission of a new crime. Both conditions were affirmed and his probation officers, with whom Defendant had a long-term and relatively comfortable relationship, interviewed him first in his apartment and a second time at the police station shortly thereafter. In both interviews, Defendant made incriminating statements and admitted to his guilt, but he was never held forcibly, handcuffed, or subjected to intensive or coercive interview tactics. Having not been Mirandized before offering these statements, the question before the court was whether he was entitled to Miranda warnings in the circumstances under which the admissions were made.

Holding: The Court relied on holdings from the U.S. Supreme Court and many other jurisdictions to conclude that the circumstances of this case did not entitle Defendant to a Miranda warning, at least as to the first statements made inside his home. The Court cited an evolving Miranda standard that includes a two-part test, determining (1) whether the Defendant is in police “custody” and (2) whether “inherently coercive” circumstances existed at the time of questioning. As to custody, the Court cites holdings that define “custody” narrowly, as “formal arrest” or restraint such that the Defendant understands that s/he is not free to leave. As to whether the circumstances are “inherently coercive,” the Court holds that, particularly when a defendant is already on parole or furlough, the presence of police and their inquiry in to a possible new crime are not inherently coercive, particularly when s/he is not in formal custody and there is no effort made by the officers to make their questions especially intense. The Court reversed the trial court on the admissibility of both sets of statements, but remanded the case on the second set of statements for review of the facts to determine whether the second set of statements were made “in custody” under the Miranda definition.

Dissent (Skoglund, J., joined by Robinson, J.): The dissenting Justices wrote to assert their position that, under a totality of the circumstances view, Defendant was “in custody” and therefore was entitled to a Miranda warning before both sets of statements.

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