North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
North Carolina Department of Justice
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August 23, 1978


Social Services; Welfare Fraud; Client Interviews; Warnings as to Constitutional Rights

Requested By:

Mr. Robert H. Ward, Director Division of Social Services


Must a social worker, before questioning a client in a suspected welfare fraud case, inform the client of his constitutional rights?


No, so long as nothing about the questioning might reasonably cause the client to believe he was in custody or otherwise significantly deprived of his freedom.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the use of a confession which is coerced, either by physical or mental means. State v. Chamberlain, 263 N.C. 406 (1965). "The test of admissibility of a confession is whether the statements made by the defendant were in fact voluntarily and understandingly made." State v. Jones, 278 N.C. 88 at 92 (1971). The state courts are bound by the United States Supreme Court's interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), which requires that to insure voluntariness a suspect be warned, prior to interrogation, of his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. The situation that triggers this requirement is a "custodial interrogation". Id. at 444. Prior to Miranda, the Court had seemed to hold that the decisive stage was reached when the investigation "had begun to focus on a particular suspect." Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478 at 490 (1964). But Miranda explicitly limited the requirement to "custodial interrogations", and the warnings have since been required only in such situations. State v. Dollar, 292 N.C. 344 (1977); State v. Meadows, 272 N.C. 327 (1968).

Our question now becomes: Is an interview by a social worker concerning suspected fraud a "custodial interrogation"? In Miranda a custodial interrogation is defined as "questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way". Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. at 444. A client brought to the Department of Social Services for a normal interview of this type has not been arrested, restrained, or deprived of his freedom. He is free to leave, is not being questioned in a coercive atmosphere, and is not at a police station. There are no factors compelling involuntary testimony.

In accordance with this argument, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that social workers need not give Miranda warnings during investigations of suspected fraud. State v. Graves, 60

N.J. 441 (1972). The Colorado Supreme Court arrived at the same conclusion, though it was not essential to the holding in that case. People v. Parada, 533 P.2d 1121 (Colo., 1975). Similarly, in a decision by the United States Supreme Court, an Internal Revenue Service special agent investigating potential criminal tax violations was not required to inform the suspect of his rights. Beckwith v. United States, 425 U.S. 341 (1976). The Supreme Court distinguished between the "focus of the investigation" test and the "custodial interrogation" test, and emphatically applied the latter. Id. at 345. In so doing, the Supreme Court affirmed decisions in nine of the Circuits including the Fourth Circuit. See, United States v. Browney, 421 F.2d 48 (4th Cir., 1970).

It should be remembered that the Miranda, warnings are merely a procedural device to ensure the voluntariness of a defendant's statement. Though they are not required in these interviews, any statement, to be admitted, must have been given voluntarily. It "must not be extracted by any sort of threats or violence, nor obtained by any direct or implied promises, however slight, nor by the exertion of any improper influence." Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 at 753 (1970). Social workers should avoid such influences. See, People v. Paranda, supra.

Rufus L. Edmisten Attorney General

Steven Mansfield Shaber Associate Attorney