By: Joe Hegedus, Attorney
On July 19, 2017, in The City of Cleveland v. Oles, 2017-Ohio-5834, the Ohio Supreme Court resolved a conflict among Ohio Appeals Courts concerning the application of Miranda to suspects who are placed in the front seat of cruisers, during traffic stops.
The relevant facts of the case illustrate that an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper was observing traffic on a highway while standing outside of his vehicle with a speed-measuring device.
During this time period, the trooper witnessed a vehicle which was being operated erratically in close proximity to his location.
After the driver nearly struck the trooper’s vehicle, the trooper pursued the erratic driver and initiated a traffic stop.
The trooper’s initial contact with the driver made him suspicious that the driver was impaired. In order to investigate further, the trooper requested the driver of the vehicle to sit in the front seat of his cruiser.
Once seated in the patrol car, the trooper asked the suspect whether he had consumed alcohol to which he responded that he had “four mixed drinks while at the wedding.”
As a result, field sobriety tests were administered and, upon failing the tests, the driver was arrested for offenses including operating a vehicle while under the influence (“OVI”).
During proceedings at the trial court, the suspect moved to suppress evidence obtained during the traffic stop including the statement made while sitting in the front seat of the patrol car, based upon the theory that his Fifth Amendment rights were violated, due to the absence of Miranda warnings.
The trial court granted the Motion to Suppress and the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, based on the absence of Miranda warnings, by concluding that:
[u]nder the totality of the circumstances presented in this case, we find that a reasonable person, removed from his or her vehicle and questioned about their alcohol consumption in the passenger seat of a police cruiser would not feel free to leave.
Oles, supra, ¶ 6.
The Ohio Supreme Court accepted the appeal based on the Eighth District’s assertion that a certified conflict existed between the Eighth District’s opinion and opinions of several other Appeals Courts.
The certified question to be decided, as set forth in ¶ 7 of the Court’s decision, was as follows:
[I]n the course of a traffic stop, d[o] the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 10, Article I of the Ohio Constitution, require a law enforcement officer to provide Miranda warnings to a suspect, who is removed from his vehicle and placed in the front seat of a police vehicle for questioning?
In making its decision, the Ohio Supreme Court reviewed its own previous decisions, decision(s) of the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as Ohio Appeals Court decisions, and observed:
These decisions illustrate that determining whether front-seat questioning during a traffic stop is a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings demands a fact-specific inquiry that asks whether a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood himself or herself to be in custody while being questioned in the front seat of the police vehicle.
Oles, ¶ 21.
The Court then provided further guidance in reviewing the fact-specific inquiry, referenced above, by concluding that, “questioning a suspect during a traffic stop in the front seat of a police vehicle does not rise to the level of a custodial interrogation when (1) the intrusion is minimal, (2) the questioning and detention are brief, and (3) the interaction is non-threatening or non-intimidating.” Oles, ¶ 24.
In applying the above-factors to the facts of this case, the Court found that, 1. the trooper did not demand, but, instead, requested the suspect to sit in the front seat of the cruiser, 2. a pat-down search was not performed, 3. the trooper did not request to search the suspect’s car and permitted the suspect to retain his car keys during the traffic stop, 4. the entire incident occurred in view of the public and was short in duration, and, 5. the suspect was not handcuffed and the questioning was neither overly repetitive, nor coercive in nature.
As a result, the Court concluded that a reasonable person, under the totality of the circumstances, “would not have understood himself or herself to be in custody.” Id. at ¶ 29. Thus, “[t]he trooper’s questioning of Oles in the front seat of the patrol car did not rise to the level of a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings.”
Consequently, the Court determined that no constitutional violation occurred and it reversed the decision of the court(s) below, thereby vacating the prior granting of the Motion to Suppress.
In this case, as in many cases evaluating the duty to provide Miranda warnings, the Court declined to issue a bright line rule, in favor of a fact-specific inquiry.
Accordingly, it is always prudent to carefully analyze each factual scenario as it occurs and to reach out for assistance whenever in doubt.