Are Miranda warnings required when a person is questioned during a routine traffic stop? (Photo Dale Stockton)
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Any seasoned police officer can recite Miranda rights from memory: You have a right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law; you have a right to the presence of an attorney; and if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you prior to any questioning if you so desire.1 Each of these four statements must be given to a suspect prior to any custodial interrogation. Failure to inform a suspect of their Miranda rights could result in the inadmissibility or suppression of evidence stemming from the interrogation.
The key issue in providing the constitutional protections under Miranda is when custodial interrogation begins. A custodial interrogation is generally defined as any questioning initiated by police officers after a person has been taken into custody or is otherwise deprived of their freedom in any significant way. It doesn’t, however, involve the officer’s general questioning at the scene of an incident as to facts surrounding a crime or other general questioning of individuals during the fact-finding process.
Factors Reflecting Custody
No single factor determines whether a person is in custody during questioning. The courts have used several of the following factors to determine that persons were in custody when questioned:
• Handcuffing the suspect;
• Officers drawing their weapons;
• Questioning the suspect over a long period of time;
• Questioning them late at night;
• The presence of numerous officers;
• Excluding family and/or friends;
• Placing the suspect in the back of a police vehicle;
• Authoritarian and accusatory demeanor of officer; and
• Questioning at the police station.
The courts have found the following factors indicate a suspect is not in custody during questioning:
• Officers stating to the suspect he is not in custody;
• Weapons holstered;
• Suspect not handcuffed;
• Officers’ polite and respectful demeanor;
• Short detention and questioning;
• Explanation that he doesn’t have to answer questions; and
• Suspect driving self to station.
Of course, determining whether a person is in custody isn’t as simple as looking at a chart. This is certainly true when motorists are questioned and arrested on the roadside, perhaps as a result of field sobriety testing or other investigation of criminal activity. Generally, motorists aren’t free to leave while police officers are issuing citations, performing field sobriety tests or other law enforcement activities.
That said, are police officers required to recite the Miranda warnings before questioning motorists while investigating traffic offenses, and if so, which ones?
The General Rule
As a general rule, Miranda warnings are not required when a person is questioned during a routine traffic stop or Terry2 stop. A temporary detention—incident to a traffic stop or general on-the-scene investigation—normally doesn’t trigger the Miranda protections. A motorist detained pursuant to a traffic stop is entitled to Miranda protections only if they’re restrained to a degree associated with a formal arrest.
It’s true an ordinary traffic stop curtails the freedom of the detained motorist and imposes some pressures on the motorist to answer questions. But these pressures don’t sufficiently impair the motorist’s privilege against self-incrimination and Miranda rights. This is true even though someone stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation doesn’t feel free to leave.3 Why? Because routine roadside questioning of motorists pursuant to a traffic stop is more analogous to a Terry stop than a formal arrest.4
The following are but a few examples where Miranda warnings are not required during a traffic stop:
• When a motorist can’t produce their license and vehicle registration, it’s not unlawful for an officer to ask whether the motorist had permission to drive the car, where they were going and whether they had any money.5 The motorist’s replies are admissible even though the officer failed to issue Miranda warnings.
• When a motorist is stopped because their license plates are expired, an officer’s inquiry into the reason the plates are expired doesn’t require Miranda warnings.6
• When an officer stops a motorist for speeding and conducts a cursory search of the vehicle and asks general questions (e.g., who owns which piece of luggage), Miranda warnings are not required because the motorist was not subjected to custodial interrogation.7
• When an officer observes a motorist weaving across the lanes of the road, the officer smells alcohol on the motorist’s breath and the motorist affirms that they had “one bottle of wine and two mixed drinks” when asked if they had anything to drink, Miranda warnings are not required prior to questioning if the officers haven’t placed the motorist into custody.8
Voluntary statements made during traffic stops are admissible evidence. Example: If a motorist suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol is arrested and admits they stopped alongside the roadway because they were too intoxicated to go any further, the statement will be admissible.9 There’s no requirement that Miranda warnings be issued immediately after a motorist is arrested for DUI in the event they blurt something out on the way to the station.
In another case involving a motorist suspected of DUI, after the officer described the motorist’s breath test result, the motorist’s statement, “A .18? I’m not that drunk.” was deemed not to be the result of a custodial question or interrogation for purposes of Miranda. Put simply, the officer’s statement was not intended to elicit a response.10
The following circumstances require that Miranda warnings are issued during the course of a traffic stop:
• When a passenger in a vehicle subjected to a traffic stop is asked questions by an officer prior to conducting a pat-down search after they are ordered out of the vehicle by at least five officers at gunpoint, told to lie on the ground and then handcuffed, the passenger will be deemed to be in custody for purposes of Miranda.11
• When a passenger in a car is stopped after a minor traffic violation is placed on the ground by police officers and held there after officers find crack cocaine in the glove compartment, the passenger is generally considered to be in custody. Then when the officers state that if the cocaine did not belong to the passenger, they would assume the cocaine belonged to the passenger’s mother, who owned the vehicle, the officers’ statement will be considered a statement intended to elicit a response when the passenger replies that the cocaine was theirs.12
Generally, questioning during a traffic stop is not considered a custodial interrogation because it's typically relatively brief. Additionally, the public nature of the traffic stop doesn't make a motorist feel as though they are completely at the mercy of the police. Thus, Miranda warnings aren't required. However, when a motorist (or passenger) is questioned during a traffic stop under circumstances suggesting that they are in custody per the factors described above, Miranda warnings may be necessary before questioning the motorist and/or passenger.
Don't construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.
1. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
2. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
3. Commonwealth v. Gordon, 716 N.E.2d 1036 (Mass. 1999).
4. See State v. Keeth, 203 S.W.3d 718 (Mo.Ct.App. S.D. 2006).
5. Lowe v. United States, 407 F.2d 1391 (9th Cir. 1969).
6. United States v. Chadwick, 415 F.2d 167 (10th Cir. 1969).
7. United States v. McKneely, 810 F.Supp. 1537 (D.C. Utah 1993).
8. Bradeen v. State, 711 S.W.2d 263 (Tex. App. 1986).
9. McClendon v. State, 410 S.E.2d 760 (Ga. App. 1991).
10. State v. Snuggerud, 956 P.2d 1015 (Or. App. 1998).
11. State v. Strozier, 876 N.E.2d 1304 (Ohio App. 2007).
12. United States v. Green, 776 F.Supp. 565 (D.C. Col. 1991).