The Meaning of Custody During Traffic Stops Under Miranda v. Arizona and Berkemer v. McCarty

The 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), will occur in a few weeks on June 13. As everyone knows, the case required a set of warnings and waiver of rights before a statement obtained during custodial interrogation could be introduced during the government’s presentation of its evidence at trial. The case spawned many thousands of appellate cases throughout federal and state courts. And the United States Supreme Court has issued several rulings that have clarified, extended, or confined Miranda’s scope.

This post will briefly review the meaning of custody during traffic stops by focusing on the Supreme Court’s most significant opinion on this issue: Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984). [For a discussion of all significant aspects of Miranda, see the text on pages 534-52 and case summaries on pages 578-640 of Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (4th ed. 2011), and pages 87-89 (text) and 95-100 (case summaries) of the 2015 supplement.]

Meaning of Custody. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Berkemer, California v. Beheler, 511 U.S. 318 (1994), and other cases that a person is in custody under the Miranda rule when officers have formally arrested the person—for any offense, whether a felony or misdemeanor—or have restrained a person’s movement to a degree associated with a formal arrest (for example, handcuffing plus other circumstances; see State v. Johnston, 154 N.C. App. 500 (2002)). The North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Buchanan, 353 N.C. 332 (2001), later ruling, 355 N.C. 264 (2002), made clear in Buchanan that it follows the Court’s rulings on the meaning of custody and disavowed inconsistent statements in prior North Carolina appellate cases.

The mere giving of Miranda warnings when they are not required (because the defendant is not in custody) does not by itself transform noncustodial questioning into custodial interrogation. State v. Davis, 305 N.C. 400 (1982).

Custody is not the same as a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. For example, officers need not give Miranda warnings during an investigative stop unless and until they formally arrest the suspect or act in a manner that is functionally equivalent to a formal arrest. They also need not give Miranda warnings when they merely stop a person to issue a citation and then let the person go. Although in both situations (investigative stop and stop to issue a citation) officers may have seized people under the Fourth Amendment, they did not take them into “custody” as the term is used in the Miranda decision. To understand the concept of custody better, the following paragraph summarizes the facts in Berkemer v. McCarty:

An Ohio law enforcement officer saw the defendant’s car weaving in and out of a lane on an interstate highway. After following the car for two miles, the officer forced the defendant to stop and asked him to get out of the car. When the defendant got out, the officer noticed that he had difficulty standing. At this time, the officer apparently decided to arrest and charge the defendant, but he did not communicate his intention to the defendant. He asked the defendant to perform a field sobriety test, which the defendant could not do without falling. When the officer asked him whether he had been using intoxicants, the defendant replied that he had drunk some beers and had smoked some marijuana a short time before; his speech was slurred. The officer then formally arrested him and took him to jail.

The Court ruled that the defendant was not in custody under the Miranda ruling until the officer formally arrested him and transported him in the patrol car to the county jail. Therefore, the officer was not required to give the Miranda warnings until then. The Court stated that (1) the initial stop of the car did not, by itself, render the defendant in custody; (2) at no time between the initial stop and the arrest was the defendant subjected to restraints comparable with those of a formal arrest; (3) only a short time elapsed between the stop and the arrest; and (4) the officer’s unarticulated intention to arrest the defendant after he stepped out of the car is irrelevant in considering whether the defendant was in custody. The only relevant inquiry is the objective test of “how a reasonable man in the [defendant’s] position would have understood his situation.” The officer’s later questioning of the defendant beside his car and his request that the defendant perform a simple balancing test were not acts that are the functional equivalent of a formal arrest. However, once the officer formally arrested the defendant and transported him in his patrol car to the county jail, any statements by the defendant that the officer obtained by interrogation—for example, when asking questions in filling out an alcohol-influence report—would be inadmissible unless the officer gave Miranda warnings and obtained a waiver of rights.

Another United States Supreme Court case involving the meaning of custody during a traffic stop was decided four years after Berkemer: Pennyslvania v. Bruder, 488 U.S. 9 (1988). An officer stopped the defendant for a red light violation, smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath, and saw him stumble. The officer administered field sobriety tests, asked the defendant to recite the alphabet, and then asked him about his use of alcohol—to which the defendant answered that he had been drinking and was returning home. The officer then arrested him, placed him in his police car, and gave him Miranda warnings. Following Berkemer, the Court ruled that the defendant was not in custody until he was arrested.

North Carolina cases. Three North Carolina cases on custody during traffic stops that you may want to read are State v. Washington, 330 N.C. 188 (1991) (defendant was in custody); State v. Beasley, 104 N.C. App. 529 (1991) (defendant was not in custody); State v. Seagle, 96 N.C. App. 318 (1989) (defendant was not in custody). These cases are summarized on pages 605-606 of Arrest, Search, and Investigation.

8 thoughts on “The Meaning of Custody During Traffic Stops Under Miranda v. Arizona and Berkemer v. McCarty”

  1. What about a non-traffic stop? If a defendant is handcuffed at a residence as a result of a search warrant and the restraints are for “police safety,” can the officer ask “is this your dope?” to the restrained defendant?

    • Handcuffing a suspect who has been stopped based on reasonable suspicion can present separate issues under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, the latter amendment under which Miranda is based.

      The Fourth Amendment issue is whether handcuffing has converted the seizure from one requiring only reasonable suspicion to one requiring probable cause. Handcuffing a suspect during an investigative stop for flight or security reasons generally does not convert the seizure to one requiring probable cause. See page 46 of Arrest, Search, and Investigation (4th ed. 2011).

      On the other hand, handcuffing often triggers a requirement for giving Miranda warnings because generally a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would believe he or she is under arrest or the functional equivalent. See State v. Johnston, 154 N.C. App. 500 (2002) (custody even though officers informed the defendant that he was not under arrest but only in “secure custody” for the defendant’s safety and the safety of others); State v. Hemphill, 219 N.C. App. 50 (2012); State v. Crudup, 157 N.C. App. 657 (2003).

  2. For years I have been posting a question concerning ‘holds, arrests, and possible un-arrests’.

    One officer makes a routine traffic stop for alleged speeding nothing else. Then claims he smells alcohol, and the routine starts. Eye, test, walk test etc. He determines that there needs to be a ‘intoxilator 2000’ test. It’s near the end of his shift, so he calls another officer that has been setting alone the road with a female stopped for an alleged DWI, whom releases the female after an hour and comes to the seance. He holds his target (victim) for 10 or 15 minutes after his determination that the intox 2000 test was needed till the officer whom had held a female along the road for an hour to arrive.

    The second officer repeats and the road side tests takes custody from the officer that made the stop who then writes the speeding ticket that the first officer alleged was probable cause to make the stop making it appear as if he had made the stop on the official records and reports.

    He then drags the victim to a location and performs the intox 2000 test, and the machine fails to gather a sufficient sample because the victim has COPD which he was advised of (Life Long Breathing Issue from date of birth of the victim). He then pushes a bottom on the machine that prints out a ‘refused’ doc after the victim had blown into the device 6 times. The machine produced no numbers . anything.

    There was a ‘validity hearing’ held on the ‘civil licence revocation’ and the State stated it did not wish to pursue the matter because the victim did not refuse, the machine failed to gather a sufficient sample.

    The Judge entered a order stating that the ‘civil revocation’ was in-fact invalid, and that the Affidavit which was filed was incomplete, and had defects. This document has somehow disappeared from the public records (which is a 2 sided doc the front side is still there but the back with the results and judges order has vanished.).

    The case is still pending (approaching 6 years) after evidence of perjury on the part of both officers has been discovered. There has been over 30 hearing dates which are certainly inconveniencing the ‘victim’ and their witness.

    So here we are again with the Lex Scripta V. Lex Non Scripta questions.

  3. My experience w/wo Miranda.
    A friend and I stopped at a gas station to fuel up my car. I pumped while she went to pay at which time I noticed a police officer’s car.(Then, you could get gas before paying) I didn’t feel comfortable in the area so seeing the car was a relief. We got in the car to leave when I noticed the officer approaching my vehicle. He said I had not paid for the gas. I informed him that my “friend” paid. Long story short, because I decided not to bring my debit card when she offered to pay, I had no way of paying for the gas. I was advised I being being placed under arrest for misdemeanor larceny, handcuffed and placed in the back of his patrol car(that made me feel safe earlier?). I was taken to jail, fingerprinted, mug shot taken, placed in a holding cell (that had a phone) until my hotel room at Forsyth County Jail Extended Stay was ready. A few hours later, I began dissecting the situation in my mind and realized I was never read my rights. I was advised that I was being arrested and why I was but no one has informed me of my rights. What are my rights? Neither the arresting officer or booking officer, nor any correctional officers have given me my Miranda Warnings. I’ve heard the Miranda Warning read on TV shows(perhaps the TV form) & could recite some. I was ticked I didn’t get to hear the real thing? How could I judge the correctness of what recite? I spoke with an officer in my pod who informed me that “it will be you word against his”, but if you want to you, you can fill out this complaint form. I submitted it that day. It was never addressed or acknowledged. I still haven’t heard the Miranda Warning in person, and that’s ok.

    • Miranda rights only need to be read if the officer is going to question you after taking you into custody. So if he didnt ask you any questions after the cuffs were put on, then no violation has occurred. And if he did, then any statements are simply not admissible in court.

  4. Always assume that cops will lie because they almost always will when they face any negativity in the situation. Also, always record and immediately stream to the NET all interactions with these fake police.

  5. Traveled to different state and rented car in my name to purchase a classic car. Seller gave wrong street address. I went to address given(wrong one), rang the doorbell. It was a new video kind, and the guy said from the speaker ‘cops have been called you need to run now’. I said ‘I am here to buy the 1965 Mustang’. He said ‘cops are responding, and you better get moving’. I left the front door, walked to my rental, got in and drove away in a normal manner, not speeding. 4 blocks later, stopped at a red light, cop rolls up with lights and siren, motions me over. I stop, provide cop with license, rental, insurance, etc. He asks what I’m doing in town, I tell him shopping for classic car for sale. He starts interrogation about have I been breaking into homes, and stealing stuff. I tell him ‘never broke into anything and never stole anything’. I also said that is the last question I’m answering. He says ‘bullspit, you will answer every question right here, or you will answer it in a jail cell’. I said then I consider this custodial, and get on with the arrest. I tell him I will be calling the rental agency about their car, and he says if I make any calls to anyone he will take me out by force, and maybe the taser. I stopped talking at that point. He told me to exit the car, and I did, and locked it up too. No cuffs, but he made me stand behind the car while he got in his cruiser and got on his own cell. So, I got out my cell, called the seller of the car, and he gave me the right address this time. After 25 min cops show up in another car, and they talk for 10 minutes. A different cop comes over and asks me what I’m doing in town, and where I was going, and how long will I be there. I just shook my head and said ‘this is custodial, or I’m free to go. Pick either one.’ After another 15 min and more phone calls the same cop gave me my license back, and rental contract and said I need to lave town now. Jeez…..


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