The American legal system depends on broad legal standards and tests to flexibly apply the law to many unique situations. Chief Justice John Marshall espoused the judiciary’s role in creating such tests to safeguard citizens from unconstitutional government action. In some situations, however, judicially created legal tests are unnecessarily broad and have the potential to disadvantage classes of individuals—even when those tests aim to protect constitutional privileges such as the freedom from compelled self-incrimination.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina found itself analyzing such a test when it recently considered a case involving an individual’s Miranda rights. A case of first impression in North Carolina, State v. Hammonds considered the custody status of an involuntarily committed individual for Miranda purposes. The Hammonds court applied the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona, which evaluated the constitutionality of admitting into evidence “statements obtained from a defendant questioned while in custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way” when law enforcement failed to afford the defendant “procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self incrimination.” Regarding custody, the Miranda Court answered with a legal standard that ultimately developed into a purportedly “one-size-fits-all” test. To receive the protections offered by Miranda, an individual must be in custody—a status that a court determines by considering the “totality of the circumstances” as to whether “there was a formal arrest or a restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with formal arrest.”
Considering the custody status of involuntarily committed persons, the Supreme Court of North Carolina flatly rejected a custody per se designation in favor of discerning custody on a case-by case basis. Under a custody per se designation, an individual is presumptively in custody when a certain condition is met, unless the prosecution can rebut this presumption by showing that an exception applies. The court’s rejection of this approach in Hammonds is problematic because of the resulting coercive pressures that involuntarily committed individuals experience when their liberty is restricted regardless of whether they committed a crime. Because the Supreme Court of North Carolina failed to adequately weigh these coercive pressures, it erred in applying the one-size-fits-all approach to the involuntarily committed.
This Recent Development addresses the complications of the totality-of-the-circumstances custody approach for the involuntarily committed and argues that the Supreme Court of North Carolina should have adopted a custody per se rule. In its current form, the totality-of-the-circumstances test will encroach on the constitutional privilege to be free from compelled self-incrimination for defendants who are involuntarily committed because these individuals experience preemptive and significant restrictions on liberty and are subjected to coercion by law enforcement as a result. The one-size-fits-all approach, in practice, does not fit all.
Part I of the analysis introduces Miranda, its progeny, and the facts and ruling of Hammonds. Part II discusses why the involuntarily committed require a different custody standard that provides additional protection. Part III explains the flaw in rejecting custody per se for the involuntarily committed and proposes a bright-line solution while showing that the new rule will not greatly disrupt the protections offered by Miranda and its progeny.