Thompson v. Keohane
Annotate this Case
516 U.S. 99 (1995)
OCTOBER TERM, 1995
THOMPSON v. KEOHANE, WARDEN, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 94-6615. Argued October 11, 1995-Decided November 29,1995
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. Mter 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).
Held: 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 these cases, 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
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.