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Miranda Warnings and DWI Traffic Stops in North Carolina

Anyone who has seen a movie or television show involving a person being arrested has heard a police officer recite the Miranda warnings: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…” These warnings originated in the United States Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona (1966). In that case, the Court determined that whenever a person is subjected to custodial interrogation, these warnings are required. The 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.” When a person is stopped on suspicion of impaired driving, does this constitute custodial interrogation?

The US Supreme Court looked at this issue in 1984 in the case Berkemer v. Carty. In Berkemer, the Court acknowledged that “a traffic stop significantly curtails the ‘freedom of action’ of the driver and the passengers, if any, of the detained vehicle” since “[u]nder the law of most States, it is a crime either to ignore a policeman's signal to stop one's car or, once having stopped, to drive away without permission.”

However, “[t]wo features of an ordinary traffic stop mitigate the danger that a person questioned will be induced ‘to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely.’” The first is that the “detention of a motorist pursuant to a traffic stop is presumptively temporary and brief.” The second is that the “circumstances associated with the typical traffic stop are not such that the motorist feels completely at the mercy of the police” because the traffic stop is fairly public in nature and the motorist is typically confronted by no more than two police officers.

The Berkemer Court likened the typical traffic stop to a Terry stop, which allows “a policeman who lacks probable cause but whose ‘observations lead him reasonably to suspect’ that a particular person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, [to] detain that person briefly in order to "’investigate the circumstances that provoke suspicion.’” Because a Terry stop is “comparatively nonthreatening,” it does not require a Miranda warning. The Court concluded that “[t]he similarly noncoercive aspect of ordinary traffic stops prompts us to hold that persons temporarily detained pursuant to such stops are not "in custody" for the purposes of Miranda.”

The Court did not create a bright-line rule in Berkemer, whereby a person detained in a traffic stop would not be considered “in custody” for purposes of Miranda until that person is formally placed under arrest. Instead, the Court held that a motorist who has been detained in a traffic stop might be entitled to Miranda protections prior to a formal arrest if he “is subjected to treatment that renders him ‘in custody’ for practical purposes.”

Since Berkemer, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has considered the issue of Miranda rights in a DWI traffic stop in several cases. In 1991, the court issued the opinion in State v. Beasley. In Beasley, the defendant was stopped for speeding. When the officer asked the defendant for his driver’s license, the defendant stepped out of the vehicle to remove his license from his pocket. The officer observed that the defendant swayed, that there was an odor of alcohol coming from the defendant’s breath and that the defendant’s eyes were red and glassy. The officer told the defendant to sit in the police car and asked the defendant how much he had had to drink. The defendant answered that he had one drink. The officer then placed the defendant under arrest.

The defendant argued that the statement that he made admitting to having one drink should not have been admissible because it was made while he was in custody and before he had received the Miranda warnings. The court cited Berkemer in stating that “[d]uring a traffic stop, a driver is not considered in custody when he is asked a moderate number of questions and when he is not informed that his detention will be other than temporary.” Because the defendant could not  reasonably “believe that he was deprived of his freedom of movement in any significant way at that time,” the statement he made while in the police car prior to being placed under arrest was admissible.

In 2002, the court of appeals heard the case State v. Mark. The defendant in Mark was stopped for repeatedly crossing the center line. When the officer asked the defendant if he had had anything to drink, the defendant replied "I had a few over at a friend's house." After failing subsequent field sobriety tests, the defendant was placed under arrest. The defendant later argued that his statement “should have been suppressed because he made the statement while in ‘custody’ for the purposes of Miranda.” The court cited the North Carolina Supreme Court and stated that "the appropriate inquiry in determining whether a defendant is in ‘custody’ for purposes of Miranda is, based on the totality of the circumstances, whether there was a ‘formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest.’" The facts in Mark led to the court to conclude that the defendant was not “in custody” for purposes of Miranda.

Recently, in 2012, the court of appeals heard another case involving this issue, State v. Braswell. In Braswell, the defendant was stopped on suspicion of being involved in a car accident. During the officer’s questioning, the defendant admitted that he had taken prescription medication that morning. After the defendant failed several sobriety tests, the officer handcuffed the defendant and placed him under arrest. He was then taken to the hospital for a blood test, where he was informed of his rights concerning the blood test.

The defendant argued that his statements and the results of the field sobriety tests were inadmissible because they were the result of the officer’s questioning while he was “in custody.” The court found the defendant’s argument meritless, citing both Berkemer and Beasley and stating that “prior decisions have repeatedly held that traffic stops are not ‘custodial interrogations’ and thus not subject to the mandates of Miranda.”

If you have been charged with DWI, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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