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Court News Ohio

No Rights Warnings Required to Question Intoxicated Driver in Police Vehicle Front Seat

Image of a police cruiser with its passenger door open making a traffic stop (THINKSTOCK)

Court rules when suspects are in front seat of police cars, officers don’t always to have read them their rights before questioning.

Image of a police cruiser with its passenger door open making a traffic stop (THINKSTOCK)

Court rules when suspects are in front seat of police cars, officers don’t always to have read them their rights before questioning.

Placing a suspect in the front seat of a police cruiser during a traffic stop does not alone determine if the officer needs to read the suspect his rights before questioning, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court declined to draw a “bright-line rule” that requires an officer to provide the commonly known Miranda warnings to a suspect who has been removed from a stopped vehicle and placed in a police car. Instead the Court offered some guidelines that help determine if the stop is the type of “custodial interrogation” that mandate the warnings.

The decision reversed an Eighth District Court of Appeals ruling that an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper improperly questioned a Cleveland motorist about his consumption of alcohol when he pulled the man over and placed him in the front seat of the car. The trooper did not read the man his Miranda rights before questioning and the Eighth District ruled the statements were inadmissible evidence.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor concluded the trooper only asked the typical questions of a routine traffic stop where alcohol is suspected to be a factor, and was not “the kind of interrogation —designed to pressure a suspect to confess to illegal conduct —that was of particular concern” to the U.S. Supreme Court when it decided Miranda.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William O’Neill wrote that with onboard computers every police vehicle is “now a police station on wheels,” and placing a suspect in the vehicle requires the warning before questioning. Justice O’Neill added that officers may not have to read suspects their rights when questioning suspects still sitting in their cars.

Suspect Almost Swipes Cruiser
In 2014, a trooper was monitoring traffic on Interstate 90 in Cleveland with a laser. His cruiser was parked in an area where two portions of a highway diverge, known as a gore. The gore is a triangular area covered with hash marks indicating traffic is not permitted. The trooper was standing near his cruiser when Benjamin S. Oles cut across the gore to change highways, nearly striking the cruiser. The trooper pursued and stopped Oles.
When the officer approached the driver’s side of Oles’ vehicle, he advised Oles of the reason for stopping him and asked where he was coming from. Oles responded that he left a wedding, and the officer sensed the odor of alcohol but could not detect if it was coming from Oles or somewhere else in the vehicle. He asked Oles to step out of the car and sit in the front seat of the patrol car.

In the front seat, the trooper asked Oles how much alcohol he consumed that evening and Oles said he had four mixed drinks. Oles was asked to perform field sobriety tests and failed. The trooper arrested Oles, placed him the back seat of the car, and cited him for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OVI) and a marked-lanes violation. At no time was Oles provided Miranda warnings.

Oles Seeks to Suppress Evidence
In Cleveland Municipal Court, Oles sought to suppress the evidence from the stop, including his statements to police about drinking and the subsequent field test. He argued he was not given the Miranda warnings and that the statements were inadmissible because they violated his rights against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution.

The trial court suppressed the evidence, and prosecutors from the city of Cleveland appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The Eighth District concluded that “[u]nder the totality of the circumstances presented in this case, we find that a reasonable person, removed from his or her own vehicle and questioned about their alcohol consumption in the passenger seat of a police cruiser would not feel free to leave.” The appellate court concluded that those who do not feel free to leave must be read the Miranda warnings before questioning can begin.

The Eighth District certified that its decision conflicted with decisions by five other district courts of appeals and asked the Supreme Court to resolve the conflict. The Court agreed to answer the question of whether front-seat questioning requires Miranda warnings and accepted the city’s appeal of the Eighth District ruling for Oles.

Traffic Stop Questioning Differs From Interrogation
Chief Justice O’Connor explained the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision established safeguards against self-incrimination intended to protect suspects from coercive pressure during a custodial interrogation. She noted the high court defined custodial interrogation 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.” The answers suspects in custody provide to questions without being informed of their Miranda rights cannot be admitted as evidence in trials.

The opinion noted the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the requirement of Miranda warnings during routine traffic stops in a 1984 Ohio case (Berkemer v. McCarty). The Court found that when an officer initiates a traffic stop and questions the driver by the side of the road, Miranda warnings are not necessary. While the stop does curtail the “freedom of action” in a significant way, the stop alone does not necessarily mean the suspect is in custody, the Court explained.

The opinion noted that the Berkemer decision warned against trying to establish a bright-line rule that all traffic stops require Miranda warnings.

“Similarly, here, we decline to adopt the bright-line rule that questioning a suspect in the front seat of a police vehicle during a traffic stop rises to the level of a custodial interrogation,” the Court stated. It noted in some cases the “totality of the circumstances” will demonstrate a front-seat questioning can be a custodial interrogation that requires rights be read, but not always.

The decision stated that the Ohio Supreme Court applied Berkemer in its 2006 State v. Farris decision where a trooper pulled over a driver for speeding and smelled marijuana in his car. The trooper took the driver out of his car, patted him down, took his keys, and placed him in the front seat of the patrol car. Without providing Miranda warnings the trooper told the driver he was going to search the car and asked directly if he was going to find any drugs in it. The driver responded that he had a marijuana pipe in the trunk, and after a search of the car, the driver was arrested. The Ohio Supreme Court found that placement of the driver in the car and the questioning in that search was a custodial interrogation that required the Miranda warnings.

The Court wrote that based on Farris and several rulings by Ohio lower courts since then, it identified three factors that may provide guidance on whether the warning must be given before front-seat questioning occurs.

“[Q]uestioning a suspect during a traffic stop in the front seat of a police vehicle does not rise to the level of a custodial interrogation when (1) the intrusion is minimal, (2) the questioning and detention are brief, and (3) the interaction is nonthreatening or nonintimidating,” the opinion stated.

Oles Not in Custody
Based on those three factors, the Court found that the admission of Oles’ statements made while in the police vehicle did not violate his constitutional rights. Unlike the driver in Farris, Oles was not told his vehicle would be searched, was not patted down, and was allowed to keep his keys. And because the setting was in public view, the intrusion was minimal, and since the conversation was short, the questioning and detention was brief. Oles was not handcuffed and there was no indication the officer was overly repetitive with questions or acted in a threatening and intimidating way toward Oles.

Oles contended the Eighth District was correct when it decided Miranda warnings are required when “a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave.” However, the Court majority ruled the issue is not whether a person feels “free to leave,” but rather if the person feels they are “in custody.”

“This nuance is important and well reasoned. If the inquiry were whether the driver felt free to leave, then every traffic stop could be considered a custodial interrogation because ‘few motorists would feel free either to disobey a directive to pull over or to leave the scene of a traffic stop without being told they might do so,’” the opinion stated, citing Berkemer.

The Court concluded the totality of circumstances did not indicate the officer needed to provide Miranda warnings to Oles before questioning him, and that his constitutional rights were not violated. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the opinion.

Dissent Argues Placement in Vehicle is Custody
In his dissent, Justice O’Neill maintained that any reasonable person stopped for a traffic violation and asked to be seated in a police car, front seat or back, handcuffed or not, would believe he or she is in custody, and not free to leave.

He noted technology has dramatically changed since Miranda was decided more than 50 years ago, and officers have access of to a “world of information while seated inside” their vehicles.

“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,” he wrote.

He noted that typical traffic stops begin with preliminary investigations where officers ask seated motorists a few questions. But once a driver is asked to step out of the car, a fundamental change occurs, he submitted.

“Once the suspect is instructed to enter the police vehicle, that person’s actions are now being controlled by the police officer. A reasonable person in the suspect’s position would feel that he or she is, at that point, under the control of the officer and in custody. The suspect’s freedom of action has been curtailed in a significant way,” he wrote.

He concluded the time has come for a rule that finds once an officer instructs a suspect into a police vehicle, the Miranda warnings are required.

2016-0172 and 2016-0282. Cleveland v. Oles, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-5834.

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