The Idaho Court of Appeals has ruled that a police officer must give Miranda warnings to the driver of a car after finding drugs in the car, when he has been sufficiently treated like he is in custody, and not simply the subject of a traffic stop.  In State v. James, a divided Court held that the appellant was entitled to have been warned under the circumstances presented.  James had been stopped late at night, his car searched (with his consent), and he and his passengers had been removed from the car and frisked.  Officers under such circumstances who ask the magic “who owns the dope” question must first advise the detainees that they have the right to remain silent, per Miranda.

James is not an earth shattering decision, although it is seemingly  inconsistent with the United States Supreme Court decision in Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984), and the Court’s earlier decision in State v. Medrano, 123 Idaho 114, 844 P.2d 1364 (Ct. App. 1992). In those cases the decisions involved more routine traffic stops.  The test of whether a person is “in custody” is still objective –  “how would a reasonable man in the defendant’s circumstances have understood his situation?”  With the usual traffic stop falling far short of “detention,” defendants have typically not received the protection of Miranda. In Idaho, a traffic stop – involving a brief stop and questioning by the officer – without such warnings, has not been the basis for suppression. The Court here distinguished the facts, finding it looked more like an arrest than a traffic stop. In particular, the deputy threatened to arrest everyone unless someone admitted possession of the drugs. The driver got the message – he confessed to save his friends from arrest.  Judge Perry (dissenting) did not agree that the circumstances added up restraint that was akin to a formal arrest under the totality of the circumstances.  In particular, he did not think the officer’s threat to arrest everyone in the car was enough to elevate the investigative detention into custody. 

So what do we take away from this decision? Miranda warnings are required when the circumstances would cause a person to believe he or she is under arrest, particularly when an officer is treating the situation like an arrest. If you have been taken out of the car, separated from other passengers, frisked, had the dogs called in to search your vehicle and the cops are telling you somebody is going to jail, you probably get that all too famous warning: “you have the right to remain silent….”  Now, will you remain silent?  All too often persons stopped by the police give them all they need to produce a later conviction.  Not every stop will result in Miranda warnings, but this case gives greater clarity as to the circumstances that may lead there.  But what about the typical DUI traffic stop and questioning by the officer?  "Have you been drinking?"  In custody or not?  Likely not if it is the usual sort of case, but James may give us a better argument that statements thereafter are subject to suppression.