You just had a long Friday night drinking with your friends. As you were about to board your car, one of your friends offered his handgun knowing that you would be driving along unlit portions of the highway on your way home.
Buzzed by more than the usual rounds of beer, you accepted the firearm, tossed it inside the glove compartment and drove off.
Half an hour later, you overtook a police patrol while you weaved through four lanes of highway. The police blared its siren and pulled you over at the shoulder. An officer accosted you as you sat inside your car while he trained his flashlight at your face, your hands still on the wheel.
He routinely asked for your license and registration. As you opened the glove compartment, you forgot about your buddy’s handgun and it popped out as you unlatched the lid. The officer then asked for your firearm registration and license to carry which you, of course, failed to produce. He asked you to step out of the vehicle (which you complied) and ‘cuffed you back to the police station.
At the station, as the investigating officer questioned you about how you came into possession of the handgun, you sang your story freely, still inebriated, and signed your confession. As you slept soundly inside your detention cell, the investigator typed his report recommending that you be charged with illegal possession of unlicensed firearm.
At what point should the police have read your Miranda rights: at the shoulder of the highway or at the police station?
Routine Traffic Stop Not a Formal Arrest
In a similar case, the Supreme Court recently clarified that flagging down a motorist cannot be considered an arrest. In Rodel Luz vs. People of the Philippines, citing Berkemer v. McCarty, the Court cited the following reasons why a roadside questioning of a motorist detained pursuant to a routine traffic stop should neither be considered custodial interrogation nor regarded as a formal arrest:
1. The detention of a motorist pursuant to a traffic stop is presumptively temporary and brief. Majority of roadside detentions last only for a short period of time as the motorist is only required to answer some questions while the officer checks his license and registration. This is different from a stationhouse interrogation, which is frequently prolonged as the detainee knows that questioning will continue until he provides his interrogators the answers they seek.
2. Circumstances associated with the typical traffic stop are not such that the motorist feels completely at the mercy of the police. For instance, the typical traffic stop is public, at least to some degree.
In Luz, while the suspect was flagged for not wearing a helmet as he was driving a motorcycle, the police charged him with illegal possession of dangerous drugs after he was invited in the police station where he pulled out the contents of his pockets and revealed sachets of methamphetamines, a prohibited drug. The Court acquitted the motorist of the charge after finding that he was not read his Miranda rights when asked to disclose the contents of his apparel.
Miranda Warnings For Motorists
This ruling should be understood that an arrest may happen even for a traffic violation. When there is an intent on the part of the police officer to deprive the motorist of liberty or to take the latter into custody, the law enforcer may be deemed to have arrested the offender. At this point, the officer is required to inform the motorist of his (i) right to remain silent, (ii) right to an attorney of his choice, and (iii) right to waive these rights in writing and in the presence of counsel.
The purposes of the safeguards are to ensure that the police do not coerce or trick captive suspects into confessing, to relieve the “inherently compelling pressures” “generated by the custodial setting itself,” “which work to undermine the individual’s will to resist,” and as much as possible to free courts from the task of scrutinizing individual cases to try to determine, after the fact, whether particular confessions were voluntary. Those purposes are implicated as much by in-custody questioning of persons suspected of misdemeanors as they are by questioning of persons suspected of felonies.
(March 27, 2012)