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Traffic Stops, Custody, and Miranda

In a recent S.C. Court of Appeals case, State v. Barksdale, the Court examined the issue of traffic stops, custody, and Miranda. In this case, an officer came upon a traffic accident where EMS had already arrived. Upon investigation, the officer believed the defendant to have been drinking and driving. The officer asked the defendant several questions about drinking and also had him perform several field sobriety tests. After this was completed, the officer Mirandized the defendant. At trial, the defense argued that any statements made pre-Miranda violated the Fifth Amendment and thus should be suppressed. The trial court agreed and kept them out.


In its opinion, the Court of Appeals held that the statements made pre-Miranda did not violate the defendant's constitutional rights because he was not in custody for Miranda purposes. The Court first explained what "custody" means in this context:

Miranda warnings, the procedural safeguards used to secure the privilege against self-incrimination, are required for official interrogation "only when a suspect 'has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.'" ... A significant deprivation of freedom "has been interpreted as meaning formal arrest or detention associated with a formal arrest."

To determine if a suspect is in custody for Miranda purposes, the trial court should look to the totality of the circumstances generally, and specifically:

Whether an individual is in "custody" is determined based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation, including "the location, purpose, and length of interrogation, and whether the suspect was free to leave the place of questioning."

The Court of Appeals ultimately held that based on the facts of this case the defendant was not in custody for Miranda purposes and thus the statements should not have been suppressed. The Court compared this case to several other cases that involved a traffic collision and its initial investigation:

In State v. Kerr, this court found the defendant was not entitled to Miranda warnings during questioning because the officer on the scene was performing a routine investigation of a traffic accident...
Similarly, in State v. Morgan, our supreme court ruled a defendant was not entitled to Miranda warnings while officers were investigating a traffic accident...

The United States Supreme Court has also held that traffic stops do not necessarily rise to the level of custody for Miranda purposes:

The comparatively nonthreatening character of detentions of this sort explains the absence of any suggestion in our opinions that Terry stops are subject to the dictates of Miranda. The similarly noncoercive aspect of ordinary traffic stops prompts us to hold that persons temporarily detained pursuant to such stops are not “in custody” for the purposes of Miranda.

Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 440, 104 S. Ct. 3138, 3150, 82 L. Ed. 2d 317 (1984)

See this previous blog post about custody and Miranda.

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