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Oregon Court Rules Prisoner’s Admissions in Disciplinary Hearing Violate Miranda, But Harmlessly

by Jacob Barrett

On September 9, 2021, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the assault conviction of a prisoner based on statements he made during a jail disciplinary proceeding, agreeing with him that they were obtained under “compelling circumstances” requiring Miranda warnings he wasn’t given but concluding nonetheless that admission of the statements into evidence was harmless error.

While held at the Klamath County jail, the prisoner, Elric Vincent Shelby, was taken to meet with his attorney. A guard posted outside the room saw Shelby strike the attorney in the head, so afterward Shelby was written up on jail disciplinary charges and transferred to segregated housing—or as jail staff called it, “the hole”—where he remained until his disciplinary hearing six days later.

Meanwhile, the day after Shelby struck his attorney, the guard, Deputy Allison, attempted to interview the prisoner about the incident. But after Allison read him Miranda warnings, Shelby declined to make any statements.

That same day, he was provided with an inmate rights form containing information about his upcoming disciplinary hearing. Among other things, it advised him of the “right to remain silent.” But it also warned, “Your silence may be used to draw an adverse inference against you.”

Importantly, the form did not advise Shelby of his right not to attend the hearing, although that information was contained in the 29-page handbook he received at booking.

At the disciplinary hearing, Shelby faced four charges: one for assault, two of “disobedience of an order from staff,” and one charge of “any act that threatens the safety, security and orderly operations.” Shelby pleaded guilty to assault and not guilty to the other charges. The hearing took about four or five minutes.

A few weeks later, the state charged Shelby with fourth-degree assault, filing a motion to admit his statements made during the disciplinary hearing into evidence. At the motion hearing, Shelby argued that the statements should be excluded because he had asserted his right to remain silent and had not subsequently waived that right. The state acknowledged as much, but it argued additional warnings were not needed for an administrative hearing, which he had the option not to attend.

The trial court allowed the statements into evidence, holding that being in custody does not automatically trigger Miranda requirements. The court further observed that Shelby was never threatened with sanctions if he did not attend the hearing, and, in fact, he was not required to attend at all. Thus, Shelby’s decision to participate in the hearing evidenced his willingness to relinquish any right to remain silent.

With the aid of Ernest G. Lannet, Chief Defender, Criminal Appellate Section, and Daniel C. Bennett, Deputy Public Defender, Office of Public Defense Services, Shelby turned then to the Court of Appeals, which began its analysis by examining whether the disciplinary hearing subjected Shelby to “compelling circumstances”—the sort of law-enforcement-dominated atmosphere that Miranda warnings were intended to counteract. The Court noted that the “question must be addressed from the perspective of a reasonable person in the defendant’s position, considering the totality of the circumstances.”

Evaluating that, the Court agreed that Shelby’ circumstances were “compelling” at the time of his disciplinary hearing. He had been placed in “the hole” awaiting his hearing, which carried with it the risk of administrative sanctions. There was also no evidence that he knew he could not attend the hearing, other than the chance he remembered the information contained in the lengthy handbook he received at booking.

Moreover, he was provided an inmate rights form that warned his silence during the hearing could be used against him—not at all like the Miranda warnings given earlier. Further, the state did not file the charges until after Shelby’s disciplinary hearing, so at that time he did not know he would be facing criminal charges. Nor did he have counsel to advise him there anyway.

However, the Court continued, “not every error requires reversal.” Since Shelby did not dispute punching his attorney, the only contested element at trial was whether any physical injury resulted—and the trial court’s error in admitting his guilty plea from the jail disciplinary hearing provided no information as to that. Thus, with little likelihood of affecting the jury’s verdict on the charge of fourth-degree assault, the trial court’s decision was ruled harmless and affirmed. See: State v. Shelby,314 Ore. App. 425 (2021).

Shelby filed a petition for review with the state Supreme Court, but that was denied on January 20, 2022. See: State v. Shelby, 369 Ore. 209 (2022). 

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Related legal cases

State v. Shelby

State v. Shelby