Oral Argument Preview: Is Questioning in the Front Seat of a Police Cruiser a Custodial Interrogation? City of Cleveland v. Benjamin Oles.

Update: On July 19, 2017, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the argument here.

On March 1, 2017, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of City of Cleveland v. Benjamin Oles, 2016-0172 and 2016-0282. The case was accepted as a jurisdictional appeal and on conflict certification to determine whether Miranda warnings are required for questioning of an individual in the front seat of a police cruiser, and the cases were consolidated.  The exact question certified is “In the course of a traffic stop, does the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 10, Article I of the Ohio Constitution require a law enforcement officer to provide Miranda warnings to a suspect who is removed from his vehicle and placed in the front seat of a police vehicle for questioning?”

Case Background

On September 19, 2014, Lt. Eric Sheppard of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, saw a vehicle cross marked lines, a traffic infraction. He turned on his lights and sirens and initiated a traffic stop with the driver, Benjamin Oles.

During the stop, Sheppard learned that Oles had just left a wedding in downtown Cleveland. Oles did not appear glassy-eyed, nor was he slurring his speech, but Sheppard did note that Oles appeared to be “very slow and deliberate” in his actions. While standing next to the vehicle, Sheppard smelled alcohol.  Sheppard directed Oles to the front seat of his police cruiser to determine if the odor was originating from Oles’ mouth or from the car.

When they entered the cruiser, Sheppard did not Mirandize Oles, but continued to question him. While in the cruiser Sheppard confirmed the odor was coming directly from Oles, who admitted to drinking four mixed drinks while at the wedding.

After making these incriminating statements, Oles was given and failed standard field sobriety tests. Sheppard then arrested Oles for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Oles moved to suppress the statements made in the cruiser and the subsequent field sobriety test results. His motion was granted by the trial court, which found that Oles’ Miranda rights had been violated.

The City of Cleveland (“Cleveland”) appealed this ruling, and in a decision authored by Judge Eileen A. Gallagher, in which Judge Eileen T. Gallagher concurred and Judge Melody Stewart concurred in judgment only, the Eighth District affirmed the motion to suppress. The court held that a reasonable person ordered into a police cruiser would not believe he or she was free to leave.

Key Precedent

R.C. 4511.19 (Operating vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs – OVI.)

U.S. Constitution, Amendment V (“No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”)

Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 10 (“No person shall be compelled, in any criminal case, to be a witness against himself.”)

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) (“[T]he prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of the procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination.”)

Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984) (“Persons temporarily detained pursuant to [traffic] stops are not ‘in custody’ for the purposes of Miranda.” This protection is not triggered until a “suspect’s freedom of action is curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest.”)

State v. Farris, 2006-Ohio-3255 (Finding motorist detained during traffic stop was  in custody when he made his pre-Miranda statements, and that his post-Miranda statements were inadmissible.“The only relevant inquiry in evaluating whether a custodial-interrogation occurred is “how a reasonable man in the suspect’s position would have understood his situation.”)

Strongsville v. Kessler, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 71600, 1997 WL 476831 (Aug. 21, 1997) (Routine traffic stops, even when the driver is detained during roadside questioning, do not meet the threshold of a custodial interrogation and therefore do not require Miranda warnings.)

Cleveland v. Reese, 2014-Ohio-3587 (8th Dist.) (Reasonable suspicion is all that is required for admission of field sobriety tests.)

Rocky River v. Brenner, 2015-Ohio-103 (8th Dist.) (The standard for conducting an OVI investigation is “reasonable suspicion” of intoxication based on “specific and articulable facts” that an individual was exhibiting clear symptoms of intoxication.)

Murphy v. Waterfront Comm’n of New York Harbor, 378 U.S. 52 (1964); (The independent source doctrine: if illegitimate evidence arose from a wholly independent source it can still be admissible.)

State v. Perkins, 18 Ohio St.3d 193 (1985) (“Illegally obtained evidence is properly admitted in a trial court proceeding once it is established that the evidence would have been ultimately or inevitably discovered during the course of a lawful investigation.”)

Conflict Cases

The cases currently in conflict with the Eighth District decision can be found here.

Cleveland’s Argument

Mere presence in a police cruiser does not give rise to a custodial interrogation that is the “functional equivalent of a formal arrest” as required by Berkemer. In the absence of a custodial interrogation, there is no requirement that an individual be Mirandized. The act of moving Oles into the cruiser was not an interrogation technique, but instead was a means to put him into a controlled environment. This ensured that Sheppard could locate the source of the alcoholic odor. Under Kessler, this was simply a routine traffic stop; therefore the subsequent suppression was in error.

Farris involved a traffic stop where after smelling marijuana, the suspect was ordered out the vehicle, patted-down, and had his car keys confiscated during a search of his vehicle. In the present case, Oles was not subjected to a pat-down, he kept possession of his keys, and was never handcuffed. The fact-pattern present here closely mirrors other conflict cases (such as State v. Serafin) where questioning during routine traffic stops does not amount to a custodial interrogation. The same principle should be applied to this case and the court should find that “a brief detention in the front seat of a police vehicle . . . does not constitute a custodial interrogation.”

Finally, even if the statements made by Oles were properly suppressed, the subsequent field sobriety tests should not be excluded because of the independent source doctrine, which allows the admission of evidence that has been discovered by means wholly independent of any constitutional violation. Sheppard had reasonable suspicion to conduct these tests, based on his observance of Oles’ demeanor, independent of the statements Oles made in the cruiser.

Oles’ Argument

The court should answer the certified question in the affirmative, and uphold the court of appeals decision. Under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would have felt that he was not free to leave. Oles was ordered into a foreign and intimidating environment. Inside the cruiser there were guns, a cage, a computer, and an armed law enforcement officer asking him questions.  A reasonable person in this situation would not feel free to stop the questioning, get out of the cruiser, and drive away. In fact, per the Eighth District, it would be “unrealistic and irrational” to conclude otherwise.

The First, Second, Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Districts have all incorrectly applied the law as established in Farris and Berkemer. What was intended to be an objective evaluation has morphed into a flawed litmus test in which courts simply look into: (1) whether the suspect was handcuffed, patted-down, and/or retained possession of his keys; (2) the length of the detention; and (3) where the suspect was placed in the cruiser. While the presence of these factors would make the situation seem more custodial, they are not required or determinative. A reasonable person can still believe he or she is “in custody” without any of those factors being present.

While Sheppard’s unstated intention to arrest Oles is not dispositive, it is “instructive” contextual evidence that supports Oles’ belief that he was not free to leave.

Additionally, this court should not consider the independent source doctrine asserted by Cleveland, as it was not raised below, and thus was waived. However, if the court does entertain this argument, it will find that it, too, is without merit. Without the non-Mirandized statements, Sheppard did not have reasonable suspicion to conduct the field sobriety tests.

Cleveland’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. 1

The investigative questioning of a driver in the front seat of a police vehicle during a routine traffic stop does not rise to the level of custodial interrogation and any statements elicited do not incur the protections of Miranda.

Cleveland’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. 2

The evidence obtained independently in an investigation of driving under the influence during a routine traffic stop cannot be suppressed.

Amici in Support of Cleveland

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney’s Association filed a joint brief in support of the City of Cleveland. The amici reiterated the factors (handcuffs, pat-downs) that were notably absent in this case. Going beyond Ohio, in a jurisdictional sweep, several other state supreme courts—Missouri, Nevada, Kansas, and Wisconsin—have all held that “mere presence” in a cruiser does not create a custodial interrogation. They also proposed an alternative to the independent source doctrine, asserting that the field sobriety tests would have inevitably been discovered during Sheppard’s investigation.

The prosecutorial amici urge the court not to issue a blanket holding extending the protections of the Ohio Constitution simply because it has done so regarding the Fourth Amendment. The right against self-incrimination mentioned in both State and Federal Constitutions is “virtually identical” and should not be distinguished.

Amicus in Support of Oles

The Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“OACDL”) filed an amicus brief in support of Oles. OACDL argued that focusing on box-checking factors (i.e. “quibbling about whether the officer took Ole’s keys”) is an improper analysis. Furthermore, Cleveland is over-reliant on Berkemer and the U.S. Constitution. The focus needs to be on the Ohio Constitution, which according to Farris, provides greater protection to criminal defendants. Following this precedent, both the inculpatory statements and the field sobriety tests should be excluded.

Student Contributor: Jefferson Kisor




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