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.