Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Commonwealth v. Cooley that a defendant was subject to custodial interrogation during an encounter with his parole agent. Because the defendant was never read his Miranda rights, the Court further held that the admission of the defendant’s statement was in error and remanded the case for a new trial.
The defendant’s parole agents, having reason to believe that the defendant was discharging firearms and selling drugs in his home, in violation of his probation status, had called the defendant to their office. He was never given Miranda warnings. Despite being on parole for 17 months without incident, and having just returned from an approved out-of-state vacation, the defendant was kept in handcuffs. The encounter did not relate to the conditions of his parole. The defendant was never told that he was under arrest or being restrained due to a routine policy. The parole agents admitted that they were investigating new crimes. According to the Supreme Court, this conduct was the functional equivalent of that of police officers.
The Trial Court and the Superior Court had held that the parole agents were working under their statutory authority in relation to the terms of parole, and that no Miranda warnings were required because it was not a “custodial interrogation.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed.
Considering the specific issue of whether the encounter was “custodial interrogation” requiring Miranda warnings under United States Supreme Court precedent (see here for more on Miranda rights generally), the Justices held that a parolee does not lose his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination merely because of his conviction of a different crime. Like any other person, a parolee must be afforded his rights under the Fifth Amendment not be be forced into speaking against his interest by police techniques. Because the defendant had been denied his freedom in a significant way by an officer of the state, and questioned, there was a violation of Miranda. Under a totality of the circumstances test, a reasonable person would not have believed that he was free to leave during the course of the questioning.
Because the statements made in the course of the parole agent’s investigation were used against the defendant at trial and primarily led to the conviction, the admission was not harmless and the Court vacated and remanded the conviction for a new trial.
Former Justices McCaffery and Castille did not participate in the decision. Justice Stevens dissented, noting that he did not believe that the handcuffing at a pre-arranged meeting in a familiar location under familiar rules between a parolee and his agent was the equivalent of an arrest for Miranda purposes, but only for the officer’s safety.