BERKEMER V. MCCARTY, 468 U. S. 420 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984)

Berkemer v. McCarty

No. 83-710

Argued April 18, 1984

Decided July 2, 1984

468 U.S. 420


After observing respondent's car weaving in and out of a highway lane, an officer of the Ohio State Highway Patrol forced respondent to stop and asked him to get out of the car. Upon noticing that respondent was having difficulty standing, the officer concluded that respondent would be charged with a traffic offense and would not be allowed to leave the scene, but respondent was not told that he would be taken into custody. When respondent could not perform a field sobriety test without falling, the officer asked him if he had been using intoxicants, and he replied that he had consumed two beers and had smoked marihuana a short time before. The officer then formally arrested respondent and drove him to a county jail, where a blood test failed to detect any alcohol in respondent's blood. Questioning was then resumed, and respondent again made incriminating statements, including an admission that he was "barely" under the influence of alcohol. At no point during this sequence was respondent given the warnings prescribed by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U. S. 436. Respondent was charged with the misdemeanor under Ohio law of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and when the state court denied his motion to exclude the various incriminating statements on the asserted ground that their admission into evidence would violate the Fifth Amendment because respondent had not been informed of his constitutional rights prior to his interrogation, he pleaded "no contest," and was convicted. After the conviction was affirmed on appeal by the Franklin County Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court denied review, respondent filed an action in Federal District Court for habeas corpus relief. The District Court dismissed the petition, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Miranda warnings must be given to all individuals prior to custodial interrogation, whether the offense investigated is a felony or a misdemeanor traffic offense, and that respondent's post-arrest statements, at least, were inadmissible.


1. A person subjected to custodial interrogation is entitled to the benefit of the procedural safeguards enunciated in Miranda, regardless of the nature or severity of the offense of which he is suspected or for which

Page 468 U. S. 421

he was arrested. Thus, respondent's statements made at the station house were inadmissible, since he was "in custody" at least as of the moment he was formally arrested and instructed to get into the police car, and since he was not informed of his constitutional rights at that time. To create an exception to the Miranda rule when the police arrest a person for allegedly committing a misdemeanor traffic offense and then question him without informing him of his constitutional rights would substantially undermine the rule's simplicity and clarity, and would introduce doctrinal complexities, particularly with respect to situations where the police, in conducting custodial interrogations, do not know whether the person has committed a misdemeanor or a felony. The purposes of the Miranda safeguards as to ensuring that the police do not coerce or trick captive suspects into confessing, relieving the inherently compelling pressures generated by the custodial setting itself, and freeing courts from the task of scrutinizing individual cases to determine, after the fact, whether particular confessions were voluntary, are implicated as much by in-custody questioning of persons suspected of misdemeanors as they are by questioning of persons suspected of felonies. Pp. 468 U. S. 428-435.

2. The roadside questioning of a motorist detained pursuant to a routine traffic stop does not constitute "custodial interrogation" for the purposes of the Miranda rule. Although an ordinary traffic stop curtails the "freedom of action" of the detained motorist and imposes some pressures on the detainee to answer questions, such pressures do not sufficiently impair the detainee's exercise of his privilege against self-incrimination to require that he be warned of his constitutional rights. A traffic stop is usually brief, and the motorist expects that, while he may be given a citation, in the end, he most likely will be allowed to continue on his way. Moreover, the typical traffic stop is conducted in public, and the atmosphere surrounding it is substantially less "police dominated" than that surrounding the kinds of interrogation at issue in Miranda and subsequent cases in which Miranda has been applied. However, if a motorist who has been detained pursuant to a traffic stop thereafter is subjected to treatment that renders him "in custody" for practical purposes, he is entitled to the full panoply of protections prescribed by Miranda. In this case, the initial stop of respondent's car, by itself, did not render him "in custody," and respondent has failed to demonstrate that, at any time between the stop and the arrest, he was subjected to restraints comparable to those associated with a formal arrest. Although the arresting officer apparently decided as soon as respondent stepped out of his car that he would be taken into custody and charged with a traffic offense, the officer never communicated his intention to respondent. A policeman's unarticulated plan has no bearing on the question whether a suspect was "in custody" at a particular time; the

Page 468 U. S. 422

only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation. Since respondent was not taken into custody for the purposes of Miranda until he was formally arrested, his statements made prior to that point were admissible against him. Pp. 468 U. S. 435-442.

3. A determination of whether the improper admission of respondent's postarrest statements constituted "harmless error" will not be made by this Court for the cumulative reasons that (i) the issue was not presented to the Ohio courts or to the federal courts below, (ii) respondent's admissions made at the scene of the traffic stop and the statements he made at the police station were not identical, and (iii) the procedural posture of the case makes the use of harmless error analysis especially difficult, because respondent, while preserving his objection to the denial of his pretrial motion to exclude the evidence, elected not to contest the prosecution's case against him and thus has not yet had an opportunity to try to impeach the State's evidence or to present evidence of his own. Pp. 468 U. S. 442-445.

716 F.2d 361, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 468 U. S. 445.

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