American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Summer 2005), pp. 1011-1025


Last term's decisions in Yarborough v. Alvarado and Missouri v. Seibert shed important light on the state of the Miranda doctrine in the Supreme Court. In Yarborough, a slim majority held that a state appellate court's failure to consider a defendant's age and history of contact with law enforcement in its “custody” determination was not “contrary to” or an “unreasonable application of” clearly established Supreme Court case law. In Seibert, a fractured majority affirmed the Missouri Supreme Court's decision to exclude a defendant's confession where police officers strategically withheld a suspect's Miranda rights at the outset of a custodial interrogation and only gave the warnings after obtaining a complete confession.

On first impression, both decisions appear quite unrelated. Consider the precise issues before the Court: Yarborough concerned the definition of “custody”; Seibert addressed the proper remedy when police have not honored Miranda's command that the warnings precede any custodial interrogation. Consider too their procedural postures: Yarborough concerned review of a federal appellate court decision on a habeas petition challenging a state conviction; Seibert involved direct review of a state Supreme Court decision.

Studied more closely, the two cases share an important common thread. Both concerned whether an actor's “subjective” understanding was relevant to the doctrinal inquiry or, instead, whether the inquiry should be guided by purely “objective” factors. In Yarborough, the Court revisited its definition of custody—whether “a reasonable person [would] have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave”—and appeared to hold that a defendant's peculiar characteristics were not relevant to the “reasonableness determination.” In Seibert, the justices divided over whether the availability of the exclusionary remedy following delayed administration of the warnings turned on the objective unreasonableness of the officer's conduct or on evidence of deliberate misconduct by police.

Seen at this level, Yarborough and Seibert carry broader implications about the Court's willingness (or reluctance) to rely on subjective or objective tests to shape the formation of the Miranda doctrine specifically and “reasonableness” doctrines more generally. To be sure, the Court has not charted an entirely consistent path on these matters, and these most recent decisions confirm the Court's unpredictability. Nonetheless, one can draw both positive lessons about how the Court confronts reasonableness determinations and normative lessons about how it should do so.

This Essay explores these lessons in three parts. Part I traces some of the traditional arguments for and against subjective and objective standards of reasonableness, drawing on debates in other contexts where those issues have arisen. Part II reviews the facts and various opinions of Yarborough and Seibert and then evaluates the opinions in light of these traditional arguments. Part III elevates the critique to a normative level and offers guidance on how the Court should address these doctrinal issues in the future.

In the interest of brevity, I subject this Essay to two important simplifying assumptions. First, the Essay does not take a position in the debate over the legitimacy of Miranda—either as a matter of constitutional doctrine or as a matter of policy. I take Miranda doctrine as I find it and simply trace out its logical implications. Second, the Essay assumes that Miranda doctrine should be developed in light of its underlying purposes: to counteract the inherently compelling nature of the custodial interrogation and reduce the risk that an involuntary confession will be admitted at trial through the use of its presumptions, prophylactic rules and exclusionary principles.