Revisiting Rhode Island v. Innis: Offering a New Interpretation of the Interrogation Test

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
CitationVol. 33
Publication year2022


Creighton Law Review

Vol. 33



In Miranda v. Arizona,(fn1) the United States Supreme Court held that "the prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination."(fn2) The Miranda Court failed, however, to define "interrogation."(fn3) Almost twenty years later, the Supreme Court in Rhode Island v. Innis(fn4) "address[ed] for the first time the meaning of 'interrogation' under Miranda v. Arizona."(fn5)

The Innis Court defined interrogation as "any words or actions . . . that the police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the suspect."(fn6) The Court, however, failed to specify whether the Innis test(fn7) requires an objective or subjective in-quiry and from whose perspective a police officer's words or actions should be viewed. The Court's definition, therefore, did little to clarify the law and thus provides little or no guidance to lower courts in determining whether a person has been interrogated.(fn8) As a result, a definitive interpretation of Innis has yet to emerge.(fn9) In fact, the federal circuit courts have adopted their own interpretations of the Innis test, many of which are inconsistent with the language of the Innis opinion and the concerns of Miranda.(fn10) These interpretations include: (1) a reading of Innis as an objective test; (2) a reading of Innis as an objective test which also examines a police officer's intent; (3) a reading of Innis as a subjective test focusing on a suspect's perspective; and (4) a reading of Innis as a "mixed" test combining both an objective and subjective inquiry.(fn11)

The need for a uniform interpretation of Innis, which is consistent with the opinion itself and the concerns of Miranda, is important for several reasons. First, a split among the circuit courts is generally problematic. The division in this case is particularly undesirable because of its constitutional implications. Clarifying the Innis test, therefore, is necessary to ensure that an individual's Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination is adequately enforced. Second, how a court defines interrogation is not simply an academic exercise; it can have drastic consequences for the individual suspects of police investigations. Finally, the definition of interrogation can effect law enforcement technique and strategy. A uniform interpretation of the Innis test would allow law enforcement officers to consistently balance effective investigatory techniques with an individual's constitutional rights.

This article attempts to clarify the Innis Court's definition of interrogation. Part II of this article examines Innis, discussing the facts of the case, the Innis test, and the application of the test to the facts. Part III discusses the split between the circuit courts and identifies the different interpretations of Innis. Part IV offers a "hybrid test" as an alternative interpretation of Innis. The implementation of the hybrid test is discussed in Part V. In discussing the implementation of the hybrid test, a multi-tiered approach is rejected in favor of a balancing test. Part VI rejects the objective interpretation, the dominant interpretation of Innis, in light of the hybrid interpretation. Finally, Part VII concludes that the hybrid test is the interpretation most con-sistent with the language of Innis, the concerns articulated in Miranda, and with similar tests in law.



On January 17, 1975, just after midnight, the Providence, Rhode Island police received a call from a local taxicab driver.(fn12) The driver reported that he had been robbed by an individual wielding a sawed-off shotgun.(fn13) The driver dropped off his assailant, who was apparently a passenger, in an area of Providence known as Mount Pleasant.(fn14) The cab driver proceeded to the Providence Police Department to give a statement.(fn15) At the police station, the cab driver identified his assailant as one of the individuals pictured on a police bulletin board.(fn16) The police prepared a photographic array and the driver again identified the same individual - Thomas J. Innis.(fn17)

Innis was arrested that same day at approximately 4:30 a.m. by Patrolman Lovell. Lovell was patrolling Mount Pleasant when he spotted an individual who he identified as Innis.(fn18) Lovell arrested Innis, who was unarmed, and informed him of his Miranda rights.(fn19) Lovell then placed Innis in his patrol car and waited for additional officers to arrive. Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Sears arrived and read Innis his Miranda rights. Captain Leyden subsequently arrived. He too read Innis his Miranda rights. Innis responded that he understood his rights and that he wanted to speak to a lawyer.(fn20)

Innis was placed in a "caged wagon" and driven to the central police station.(fn21) Accompanying Innis were Officers Gleckman, Williams, and McKenna. Before leaving for the police station, Captain Leyden instructed the three officers "not to question the respondent or intimidate or coerce him in any way."(fn22)

Riding to the police station, Officer Gleckman engaged Officer McKenna in a conversation concerning the missing shotgun.(fn23) Gleckman told McKenna that he frequently patrolled this part of Mount Pleasant because "there's a lot of handicapped children running around in this area, and God forbid one of them might find a weapon with shells and they might hurt themselves."(fn24) McKenna echoed Gleckman's concern telling Gleckman that it was a safety factor and the officers should continue to search for the weapon.(fn25) Williams, who did not participate in the conversation, remembered at trial that Gleckman "said it would be too bad if the little - I believe he said a girl - would pick up the gun, maybe kill herself."(fn26)

Innis interrupted the conversation and informed the officers that they should turn the car around so he could show them the location of the gun.(fn27) Innis directed the officers to the scene of the arrest where a search for the shotgun ensued. Innis was again informed of his Miranda rights. Again, Innis responded that he understood his rights and that he "wanted to get the gun out of the way because of the kids in the area in the school."(fn28) Innis then led the officers to the exact location of the gun.

Innis was indicted by a grand jury for kidnapping, robbing, and murdering John Mulvaney.(fn29) Before trial, Innis moved to suppress the shotgun and the statements he made regarding the weapon.(fn30) The trial court admitted both the shotgun and the statements into evidence. The trial court reasoned that Innis was fully advised of his Miranda rights, the officers understandably voiced their concerns for the safety of the handicapped children, and Innis's decision to inform the police of the location of the gun and his subsequent statements constituted a waiver of his Miranda rights.(fn31) The court did not determine if the officers had interrogated Innis.(fn32) Thus, the evidence was introduced and Innis was subsequently convicted by a jury.(fn33)

The Rhode Island Supreme Court, on appeal, held that Innis was entitled to a new trial.(fn34) The Court reasoned that the police subjected Innis to "subtle coercion" which was equivalent to "interrogation" under Miranda.(fn35) Because the shotgun and related statements were obtained in violation of Miranda, neither should have been admitted into evidence.(fn36)

The Miranda Court did not, however, define interrogation in a custodial setting.(fn37) Thus, in 1979, when Innis reached the United States Supreme Court, the Court was provided with the opportunity "to address for the first time the meaning of 'interrogation' under Miranda v. Arizona."(fn38)


Justice Stewart, writing for the majority, began by examining the concept of interrogation in the context of Miranda.(fn39) Under Miranda, Justice Stewart noted, custodial interrogation occurs when a law enforcement officer initiates the questioning of an individual who "has been taken into custody or is otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way."(fn40) Justice Stewart carefully explained that to be consistent with Miranda, a definition of interrogation should not be limited to cases of express questioning. To the Innis Court, the concept of "interrogation" could not be construed so narrowly and still be consistent with Miranda.(fn41) Miranda was concerned with the environment of interrogation; that the interrogation of an individual while in custody could "'subjugate the individual to the will of his examiner' and thereby undermine the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination."(fn42) Moreover, Justice Stewart reasoned that the Miranda Court had surveyed police practices, such as the use of psychological ploys, to gain confessions.(fn43) These techniques, although not forms of express questioning, amounted to interrogation.(fn44)

Although refusing to narrowly define interrogation, the Supreme Court recognized that not all statements from suspects...

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