Being In The Front Seat Of A Police Cruiser During A Traffic Stop Does Not Mean You Are In Custody

The Ohio Supreme Court has now held that placing a suspect in the front seat of a cruiser during a traffic stop is not, by itself, a custodial arrest that requires Mirandization, and reversed an Eighth District Court of Appeals holding to the contrary..

Benjamin Oles was stopped for a traffic violation after almost hitting a cruiser while leaving a wedding.  Upon approaching the vehicle, the officer smelled the odor of alcohol and asked Oles to step out of the car and sit in the front seat of the cruiser in order to determine whether the smell was coming from the vehicle or Oles’ person.  The officer did not conduct a pat down search, and Oles was not handcuffed and retained his keys to the vehicle.  Once inside the cruiser the Oles admitted to the officer that he had been drinking.  The officer then asked Oles to step back outside of the cruiser to perform field sobriety tests, which Oles failed.

At his criminal trial the court suppressed all of the evidence, holding that Oles had been subjected to a custodial arrest when he was placed in the front seat of the cruiser and should have been given his Miranda rights.  On appeal, the Eighth District agreed and affirmed the decision, but acknowledged that its decision was in conflict with decision form other jurisdictions.

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to decide the conflict, and earlier this week an opinion reversing the 8th District’s decision and rejecting the notion that questioning a driver in the front seat of a cruiser during a traffic stop is always a custodial arrest.  The Supreme Court instead held that while it may be a custodial arrest that would require Miranda warnings, such a determination depends on the specific facts of the case including: the nature of the intrusion (i.e. whether the suspect was handcuffed, patted down, and/or had his/her keys taken away); the length of the detention; and whether the interaction was threatening or intimidating (i.e. whether accusations of criminal activity were levied against the accused and/or the vehicle was searched or threatened to be searched).  One of the biggest factors appears to be whether the suspect retains his/her car keys.  Additionally, it should be noted that while patting a suspect down before placing them in a cruiser was noted as an indicator of a custodial arrest, the Supreme Court also approvingly cited to cases in which a pat down had occurred and it was determined that there had not been an arrest.  This is important because many officers understandably want to pat down persons before placing them in a cruiser, and those officers should understand that while doing so does not automatically create a custodial arrest that requires Miranda warnings, patting someone down before placing them in the front seat of a cruiser in conjunction with other factors, such as taking a suspect’s keys, directly accusing them of committing a crime, threatening to arrest them or search their vehicle, will most likely be seen by courts as constituting a custodial arrest.  Overall, it is a totality of circumstances test that will require a case by case determination and is not, as the Court noted, subject to a “bright line” rule.

The Court’s decision also articulately set forth the difference between the “free to leave” standard, which is applicable to a determination of whether there has been a seizure, and the “in custody” standard, which is applicable to a determination of whether Mirandization is necessary.  While a person is obviously not “free to leave” during a traffic stop, regardless of whether they are placed in a cruiser, the right against self-incrimination is only implicated once a reasonable person would believe that he or she was “in custody.”  According to the Supreme Court’s decision, being placed in the front seat of a police cruiser during a traffic stop is not, by itself, sufficient to make a reasonable person believe that he or she is in custody and without more does not require that the person be read his or her Miranda rights before being questioned.

This case can be found on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website at 2017-Ohio-5834.

The author, Jared A. Wagner, Esquire, is a shareholder at Green & Green, Lawyers whose practice includes the defense of municipalities and law enforcement in policy liability and immunity cases. If you have questions in these areas, Green & Green has the experience and skill to assist.