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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > April 2012 > United States v. Cavazos — Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Jan. 19, 2012

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United States v. Cavazos — Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Jan. 19, 2012

Question: Does a law enforcement interview held in a suspect’s home automatically mean the person cannot be “in police custody” under the Fifth Amendment?
Quick answer: No, if the facts and circumstances show that the person would not have felt free to end the interview, he can be considered to be “in police custody.” 
Facts: Federal agents executed a search warrant on Michael Cavazos’ home between 5:30 and 6 a.m. because they suspected he was sending sexually explicit text messages to a minor. Agents cuffed Cavazos as soon as he got out of bed and placed him in the kitchen apart from his family. Once the house was secure, the agents moved Cavazos into a bedroom, removed the cuffs, and told him they were going to conduct a “noncustodial” interview during which he was free to eat or go to the bathroom. They did not tell Cavazos that he was free to end the interview, nor did they read him his Miranda rights. Also, when Cavazos went to the restroom and to the kitchen, agents followed and monitored him closely. The agents also listened in on Cavazos’ phone call with his brother. After an hour of questioning, Cavazos admitted to “sexting” with a minor female. The agents had him start a written confession but arrested him after five minutes and gave him his Miranda warning. 
Why the case is important: The Fifth Circuit held that Cavazos was “in custody” under Miranda because no reasonable person in Cavazos’ position would have felt free to stop the interview. The court explained that deciding whether a person is in custody depends on the totality of the circumstances. Even though Cavazos was in his own home and agents told him it was a “noncustodial interview,” other facts outweighed that possibility: Fourteen law enforcement officers entered the home without Cavazos’ consent. They briefly handcuffed him, followed him around his home, and listened in on his phone call. The agents never told Cavazos that he could stop the interview. All of these facts show that the agents were exerting control over Cavazos to the extent that he would not have felt free to stop the questioning.
Keep in mind: Any time you want to interview a potential suspect in his own home, it may be good practice to inform him that he can stop the interview at any time or just inform him of his Miranda rights. If your true intent is to keep the interview “noncustodial,” then think about what factors might make the person feel that he is not free to end the interview, such as officer presence, freedom to move about the home, and the use of handcuffs. Remedy any of these factors if they might suggest officer coercion or the person’s statements will be thrown out in court as a Fifth Amendment violation.
Click here to read the entire opinion.