The Miranda warnings are well-known: “you have the right to remain silent….” What is not so well-known is when the Miranda warnings are required. According to Miranda v. Arizona, the warnings must be given when a suspect is questioned while ‘in custody’. If a suspect is in custody and the warnings are not given, statements made by the suspect cannot be used in the suspect’s trial.
In an OVI case, a suspect may tell an officer, “I had 13 beers, and I know I shouldn’t be driving”. If the suspect was in custody at the time of making that statement, the statement is never heard by the jury if the Miranda warnings are not given. For Ohio OVI cases, the question often is this: when is a person ‘in custody’ for purposes of Miranda?
This question was first addressed by the United States Supreme Court in Berkemer v. McCarty. In Berkemer, the defendant was stopped for a traffic violation and investigated for DUI. During the investigation, but before the arrest, the defendant made incriminating statements. The court held Miranda warnings are required for misdemeanor offenses if a suspect is questioned in custody. The court concluded a person is not in custody during a routine traffic stop, but treatment by the officer after the stop may render a person in custody.
The issue of custody and traffic stops was later addressed by the Ohio Supreme Court in State v. Farris. In Farris, the defendant was stopped for speeding, and the officer smelled the odor of marijuana. The officer took the defendant’s keys and placed the defendant in a cruiser. In the cruiser, the defendant made incriminating statements. The Court concluded the defendant was in custody because a reasonable person in that position would have understood himself to be in custody of a police officer and not free to leave.
Earlier this month, this issue was addressed in Ohio by the Eighth District Court of Appeals in Cleveland v. Oles. In Oles, the defendant was stopped for a traffic violation, and the officer observed the odor of alcohol. The officer placed the defendant in the front seat of a cruiser and, without administering Miranda warnings, asked the defendant how much alcohol he consumed that night. In response, the defendant said he had four mixed drinks at a wedding. The trial court suppressed the defendant’s statements, and the prosecution appealed the trial court’s decision to the court of appeals.
The court of appeals applied the ‘reasonable person’ test from Farris. The court observed, “a reasonable individual ordered to answer questions unrelated to the initial purpose of his traffic stop, in the front seat of a police cruiser, would not believe he was free to leave. Indeed, we find that to believe otherwise would be unrealistic and irrational.” Consequently, the appellate Court upheld the trial court’s decision to suppress the statements.
I completely agree with the reasoning in the Oles decision. Other appellate courts, however, do not share my agreement. In very similar circumstances, courts for the First, Fifth, Seventh and Eleventh Districts reached the opposite conclusion. When the Oles case was decided, the Eighth District certified there is a conflict among the appellate districts. That means the issue will soon be decided by the Ohio Supreme Court.