Merit Decision: Questioning Suspect in Front Seat of Police Cruiser Following Traffic Stop Does Not Automatically Require Miranda Warnings. Cleveland v. Oles.

“The trooper’s questioning of Oles in the front seat of the patrol car did not rise to the level of a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings.”

Chief Justice O’Connor, from majority opinion

“Every police vehicle is now a police station on wheels. Being directed to have a seat in a police vehicle is akin to being taken to the police station.”

Justice O’Neill, dissenting.

On July 19, 2017, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Cleveland v. Oles, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-5834. In a 6-1 opinion written by Chief Justice O’Connor, the court held that placement of a suspect in the front seat of a police cruiser during a traffic stop is not in and of itself determinative of whether that suspect is in custody and need be Mirandized. Justice O’Neill dissented.

This case was accepted on discretionary appeal and on conflict certification, and the cases were consolidated. The exact question certified was this, and was answered in the negative:

“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?”

The case was argued March 1, 2017.

Case Background

On September 19, 2014, an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper was monitoring traffic on I-90 in Cleveland.  A car driven by Benjamin Oles nearly hit his patrol car. The trooper followed the car and pulled it over.  When talking with Oles about the reason for the stop, Oles volunteered that he had come from a wedding.  The trooper smelled alcohol, but since he couldn’t tell if that odor was coming from the car or the driver, he asked Oles to get out of his car and sit in the front seat of the cruiser.

While in the front seat of the patrol car, in response to the trooper’s questioning, Oles stated he had come from a wedding where he had consumed four mixed drinks.  The trooper then asked Oles to get out and perform field sobriety tests, which Oles did, and failed, and was subsequently arrested and placed in the back seat of the patrol car.  Oles was cited with two counts of operating a vehicle under the influence, and a marked lane violation.  Oles was never Mirandized.

At trial, Oles moved to suppress the statements made in the cruiser and the subsequent field sobriety test results on the grounds that they violated his privilege against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment and Article I Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution. His motion was granted by the trial court.

The city appealed this ruling, and the Eighth District affirmed the motion to suppress. The appeals court held that under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person ordered into a police cruiser would not believe he or she was free to leave. The appeals court then certified its decision as being in conflict with a number of other appellate districts.

Read the oral argument preview of the case here and an analysis here.

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) (in order to protect individuals from the coercive pressure of law enforcement, if an officer fails to inform a suspect of his or her rights before a custodial interrogation, any statements given are inadmissible.)

Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984) (generally, traffic stops do not require Miranda warnings; however, the rights associated with formal arrest may be required if a reasonable person, in the suspect’s position, would believe him or herself to be in custody.)

State v. Farris, 2006-Ohio-3255 (Ohio’s application of Berkemer, where the court found pre-Miranda statements to be inadmissible because of the officer’s treatment of the suspect, including placing him in a police cruiser, among other factors, all of which would lead a reasonable person to believe he or she was in custody.)

Merit Decision

Executive Summary

Putting a suspect in the front seat of a police cruiser during a traffic stop is not, in and of itself, determinative of whether the suspect has been subjected to a custodial interrogation. “The relevant inquiry is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood himself or herself to be in custody.” (emphasis added)

Analysis

Berkemer v. McCarthy

The purpose of Miranda warnings is to protect a suspect from the coercive pressure of a formal custodial interrogation. In Berkemer v. McCarthy, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed whether Miranda extended to roadside questioning of a driver during a routine traffic stop.  There, the U.S. Supreme Court held that while a traffic stop certainly “curtails the freedom” of drivers and passengers, that alone will not render a suspect “in custody,” and won’t trigger the need for Miranda warnings.  Unlike station house questioning, traffic stops are usually temporary and short, and questioning brief. Furthermore, the public nature of a traffic stop makes the entire matter less intimidating than station house questioning.

State v. Farris

In Farris, the driver, being suspected of smoking pot following a stop for speeding, was patted down, placed in the front seat of the cruiser, and had his keys removed. Then, without Mirandizing the driver, the trooper asked about the odor of marijuana, and told the driver he was going to search the car without the driver’s consent because of the odor of pot. Farris then admitted there was a marijuana pipe in the trunk.  Only then was Farris given the Miranda warnings.

Not good enough, said the Supreme Court of Ohio. This combination of factors—the pat-down, the taking of the keys, placing Farris in the cruiser, and telling him the trooper was going to search the car would cause a reasonable person in Farris’ position to believe he was in custody while in the cruiser, and therefore any statements obtained without the Miranda warnings were inadmissible.

Appellate Decisions Distinguishing Farris

The Ohio high court cites decisions from a number of courts of appeals around the state which have distinguished Farris by finding that being questioned in the front seat of a police cruiser during a traffic stop was not a custodial interrogation.  Significant common factors in these decisions were the brevity of the detention and questioning, not taking away the driver’s keys, not searching the vehicle, and not searching or handcuffing the driver.

The Take-Away Here

Determining whether front-seat questioning is a custodial interrogation that requires Miranda warnings requires “a fact-specific inquiry that asks whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood himself or herself to be in custody while being questioned in the front seat of the police vehicle.”

Court Rejects Bright-Line Rule in Favor of a Factor-Based Analysis

The court refused to adopt a bright-line rule that questioning of a suspect in the front seat of the police vehicle during a traffic stop rises to the level of a custodial interrogation. Sometimes, as in Farris, it might, depending on other factors.  In this case, it didn’t.

The Factors

These are the key factors that suggest that questioning in the front seat of the cruiser does not rise to the level of a custodial interrogation:

  1. The intrusion is minimal
  2. The questioning and the detention are brief
  3. The interaction is non-threating or non-intimidating.

Applying the Factors to This Case

Intrusion

No pat down search was performed. The officer never suggested he wanted to search the car. Oles was allowed to keep his keys.  All of this was performed in public view.  Therefore, the intrusion was minimal.

Duration of Questioning and Detention

Both were short. The conversation asking Oles about where the alcohol was coming from was brief, and once Oles admitted the number of drinks he’d had, the trooper started the field sobriety tests right away. This made it a perfectly ordinary traffic stop with  noncoercive questioning.

Nature of the Interaction

Oles was not handcuffed. Oles didn’t object to any of the questions or requests.  Once in the car, the trooper asked him the kind of general, routine, on-the-scene questions typical of a routine traffic stop involving suspected alcohol. The interaction was non-threatening and non-intimidating, and different from the interaction in Farris.

What About What Oles Thought?

Oles argued, and the appeals court agreed, that the fact that Oles believed he was not free to leave should be dispositive. But the supreme court emphasized a nuance picked up on by both the Chief and Justice DeWine during questioning, drawing a distinction between “not free to leave” and being “in custody.” The proper question here is whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood himself to be in custody.  If the inquiry were simply whether the driver felt free to leave, then every traffic stop would be considered a custodial interrogation. Here, under the totality of the circumstances, that was simply not the case, and no constitutional violation occurred.

Bottom Line

“When viewing the totality of the circumstances in this case, we find that a reasonable person in Oles’s position would not have understood himself or herself to be in custody. The trooper’s questioning of Oles in the front seat of the patrol car did not rise to the level of a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings,” O’Connor wrote for the court.

The New Judicial Federalism Footnote

The court noted in footnote one of the opinion that in Farris, it had determined that Article I, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution provides greater protection for criminal defendants than the Fifth Amendment with respect to the admissibility of physical evidence seized as a result of statements made in custody without the Miranda warnings.  Here, the court found that even though part of Oles’ argument was based on the Ohio Constitution, that issue from Farris was not present in this case because Oles was not subjected to a custodial interrogation, and therefore there was no need for him to get the Miranda warnings.

Perhaps in response to recent criticisms from Justices French, Kennedy, and DeWine about the court’s extending of greater protections under the Ohio Constitution without sufficient textual or historical analysis, O’Connor added, “We decline to extend our holding in Farris regarding the protection offered by the Ohio Constitution beyond the scope of that case, particularly without argument from the parties regarding whether the Ohio Constitution provides greater protection than the Fifth Amendment in this scenario.”

Conclusion

The court of appeals was reversed and the certified question answered in the negative.

Justice O’Neill’s Solo Dissent

O’Neill would find that Oles was in custody when the trooper ordered him into the front seat of the patrol car and should have Mirandized him.  He thinks any reasonable person asked to sit in a police cruiser—front or back—whether handcuffed or not, clearly would not feel free to leave, emphasizing that in this case the trooper testified that Oles was not, in fact, free to leave. Once a suspect is instructed to enter the police vehicle, a reasonable person in that person’s position would feel he or she is under the control of the officer and in custody.

O’Neill would resolve this scenario with a simple, bright-line rule: “if an officer is instructing a suspect to have a seat in a police vehicle, then Miranda warnings are required.” No one joined him in this.

Case Syllabus

None

Concluding Observations

At oral argument the positions of the justices that were the clearest were those of Justice DeWine and Justice O’Neill. DeWine was clearly the most skeptical of the defense argument, believing there were many permissible detainments that are short of custodial interrogations. He seemed to feel that this was just a routine traffic stop which did not rise to the level of custodial interrogation.  O’Neill, on the other hand, wasn’t buying the idea of investigative interrogation at all. He saw custody, pure and simple.

I undoubtedly should know better, but I wishful thinkingly wrote “I think a majority of the justices will find that Oles reasonably thought he was in custody. Justices O’Donnell and O’Neill in particular seemed to feel that the questioning of Oles in the front seat of the cruiser was custodial, rather than investigatory under these facts, and the Chief seemed leaning that way.” Wrong. Fourth Amendment law in traffic stop cases has really tilted full bore toward the state.  That’s why I should have known better.

Because of my interest in the new judicial federalism, I also noted that the court was unlikely to find greater protections under the Ohio Constitution here, because no argument for greater protections under the Ohio Constitution was really developed at oral argument. That part proved correct.

The justices were very hard on the Assistant City Prosecutor during questioning, but in the end they accepted his distinction between investigative questioning and custodial interrogation, and adopted his multi-factor analysis and distinguishing of Farris.

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