Are Miranda warnings required when a person is questioned during a routine traffic stop? (Photo Dale Stockton)
FEATURED IN TRAINING
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