The Reasonable Person And Miranda Warnings In Ohio OVI Cases

The reasonable person. Courts make many decisions using the test of what ‘a reasonable person’ would do/think/feel under certain circumstances. Older cases used the ‘reasonable man’ standard, but newer cased have modernized the test with gender neutrality. In the recent case of Cleveland v. Oles, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded a reasonable person stopped by a police officer and placed in a cruiser would not necessarily believe he or she is ‘in custody’, so Miranda warnings are not required.

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To properly understand the Oles decision, one must first understand the Miranda warnings. Everyone seems to be familiar with the warnings from movies and television (iTunes and Netflix for those born after 1999). Few people, however, seem to understand their origin, development and interpretation.

The United States Constitution and the Ohio Constitution both protect our right against self-incrimination. The the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution contain essentially the same language: ‘no person ‘shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself’.

In Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court created the Miranda warnings as procedural safeguards to protect the privilege against self-incrimination. The warnings are required whenever there is ‘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’. If a suspect makes statements, while in custody, in response to police questioning, the statements may not be admitted as evidence in the suspect’s trial if the suspect was not first informed of his or her Miranda rights.

The Miranda decision has been interpreted in the context of traffic stops. In Berkemer v. McCarty, the U.S. Supreme Court held a person is not ‘in custody’ during a routine traffic stop, but the circumstances after the stop may render a person in custody. In State v. Farris, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded the defendant was in custody when: an officer stopped him for a traffic offense, observed the odor of marijuana, performed a pat-down, took his keys, placed him in the front seat of a cruiser, indicated he suspected drug possession, and said his car was going to be searched. The Court reasoned the defendant was in custody because a reasonable person in that position would have understood himself to be in custody and not free to leave.

The reasonable person test resulted in a different outcome in Cleveland v. Oles. In Oles, an officer stopped the defendant for a traffic offense, observed the odor of alcohol, observed the defendant’s slow deliberate movements, placed him in the front seat of a cruiser, indicated he suspected alcohol consumption, and asked him about consuming alcohol. The court reasoned the defendant was not in custody because a reasonable person in that position would not have understood himself to be in custody. The Court highlighted the factual distinctions between Oles and Farris. The Court noted that the officer in Farris conducted a pat-down, held the defendant’s keys, and told the defendant his car was going to be searched, which would result in the defendant being detained longer.

I disagree with the Court’s analysis and conclusions. In both cases, the officer stopped the defendant for a traffic violation and placed the defendant in the front seat of the cruiser. In both cases, the defendant was aware the officer suspected criminal activity: marijuana possession in Farris and Operating a Vehicle under the Influence in Oles. In both cases, the officer asked questions about that criminal activity which resulted in the defendant making incriminating statements. The only real factual distinctions were holding onto the defendant’s keys and patting-down the defendant before placing him in the cruiser.

In my opinion, the key fact which makes the situations in both cases ‘custody’ is placing the defendant in a cruiser for the purpose of investigating criminal activity. As stated in the Oles dissent: “Police vehicles are now equipped with computers, giving officers access to a world of information while seated inside them. 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.” The dissent suggests 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. Period, end of sentence.”

I agree with the dissent’s suggested bright-line rule. When a person is taken to the police station on wheels for an investigative purpose, it doesn’t matter whether the officer conducts a pat-down or holds the persons keys: that person believes they are in custody….

….unless they are not ‘a reasonable person’.