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U.S. Supreme Court
BERKEMER v. MCCARTY, 468 U.S. 420 (1984)

  1. To assess the admissibility of the self-incriminating statements made by respondent prior to his formal arrest, we are obliged to address a second issue concerning the scope of our decision in Miranda : whether the roadside questioning of a motorist detained pursuant to a routine traffic stop should be considered "custodial interrogation." Respondent urges that it should,[fn22] on the ground that Miranda by its terms applies whenever "a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way," 384 U.S., at 444 (emphasis added); see id., at 467.[fn23] Petitioner contends that a holding that every detained motorist must be advised of his rights before being questioned would constitute an unwarranted extension of the Miranda doctrine.

    It must be acknowledged at the outset that a traffic stop significantly curtails the "freedom of action" of the driver and the passengers, if any, of the detained vehicle. Under the law of most States, it is a crime either to ignore a policeman's signal to stop one's car or, once having stopped, to drive away without permission. E. g., Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 4511.02 (1982).[fn24] Certainly few motorists would feel free either to disobey a directive to pull over or to leave the scene of a traffic stop without being told they might do so.[fn25] Partly for these reasons, we have long acknowledged that "stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a 'seizure' within the meaning of [the Fourth] , even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief." Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979) (citations omitted).

    However, we decline to accord talismanic power to the phrase in the Miranda opinion emphasized by respondent. Fidelity to the doctrine announced in Miranda requires that it be enforced strictly, but only in those types of situations in which the concerns that powered the decision are implicated. Thus, we must decide whether a traffic stop exerts upon a detained person pressures that sufficiently impair his free exercise of his privilege against self-incrimination to require that he be warned of his constitutional rights.

    Two features of an ordinary traffic stop mitigate the danger that a person questioned will be induced "to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely," Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S., at 467. First, detention of a motorist pursuant to a traffic stop is presumptively temporary and brief. The vast majority of roadside detentions last only a few minutes. A motorist's expectations, when he sees a policeman's light flashing behind him, are that he will be obliged to spend a short period of time answering questions and waiting while the officer checks his license and registration, that he may then be given a citation, but that in the end he most likely will be allowed to continue on his way.[fn26] In this respect, questioning incident to an ordinary traffic stop is quite different from stationhouse interrogation, which frequently is prolonged, and in which the detainee often is aware that questioning will continue until he provides his interrogators the answers they seek. See id., at 451.[fn27]

    Second, circumstances associated with the typical traffic stop are not such that the motorist feels completely at the mercy of the police. To be sure, the aura of authority surrounding an armed, uniformed officer and the knowledge that the officer has some discretion in deciding whether to issue a citation, in combination, exert some pressure on the detainee to respond to questions. But other aspects of the situation substantially offset these forces. Perhaps most importantly, the typical traffic stop is public, at least to some degree. Passersby, on foot or in other cars, witness the interaction of officer and motorist. This exposure to public view both reduces the ability of an unscrupulous policeman to use illegitimate means to elicit self-incriminating statements and diminishes the motorist's fear that, if he does not cooperate, he will be subjected to abuse. The fact that the detained motorist typically is confronted by only one or at most two policemen further mutes his sense of vulnerability. In short, the atmosphere surrounding an ordinary traffic stop is substantially less "police dominated" than that surrounding the kinds of interrogation at issue in Miranda itself, see 384 U.S., at 445, 491-498, and in the subsequent cases in which we have applied Miranda.[fn28]

    In both of these respects, the usual traffic stop is more analogous to a so-called " Terry stop," see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), than to a formal arrest.[fn29] Under the Fourth Amendment, we have held, a policeman who lacks probable cause but whose "observations lead him reasonably to suspect" that a particular person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, may detain that person briefly[fn30] in order to "investigate the circumstances that provoke suspicion." United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 881 (1975). " stop and inquiry must be 'reasonably related in scope to the justification for their initiation.'" Ibid. (quoting Terry v. Ohio, supra, at 29.) Typically, this means that the officer may ask the detainee a moderate number of questions to determine his identity and to try to obtain information confirming or dispelling the officer's suspicions. But the detainee is not obliged to respond. And, unless the detainee's answers provide the officer with probable cause to arrest him,[fn31] he must then be released.[fn32] The comparatively non-threatening 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 non-coercive 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.

    Respondent contends that to "exempt" traffic stops from the coverage of Miranda will open the way to widespread abuse. Policemen will simply delay formally arresting detained motorists, and will subject them to sustained and intimidating interrogation at the scene of their initial detention. Cf. State v. Roberti, 293 Ore. 59, 95, 644 P. 2d 1104, 1125 (1982) (Linde, J., dissenting) (predicting the emergence of a rule that "a person has not been significantly deprived of freedom of action for Miranda purposes as long as he is in his own car, even if it is surrounded by several patrol cars and officers with drawn weapons"), withdrawn on rehearing, 293 Ore. 236, 646 P. 2d 1341 (1982), cert. pending, No. 82-315. The net result, respondent contends, will be a serious threat to the rights that the Miranda doctrine is designed to protect.

    We are confident that the state of affairs projected by respondent will not come to pass. It is settled that the safeguards prescribed by Miranda become applicable as soon as a suspect's freedom of action is curtailed to a "degree associated with formal arrest." California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1125 (1983) (per curiam). If a motorist who has been detained pursuant to a traffic stop thereafter is subjected to treatment that renders him "in custody" for practical purposes, he will be entitled to the full panoply of protections prescribed by Miranda. See Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 495 (1977) (per curiam).

    Admittedly, our adherence to the doctrine just recounted will mean that the police and lower courts will continue occasionally to have difficulty deciding exactly when a suspect has been taken into custody. Either a rule that Miranda applies to all traffic stops or a rule that a suspect need not be advised of his rights until he is formally placed under arrest would provide a clearer, more easily administered line. However, each of these two alternatives has drawbacks that make it unacceptable. The first would substantially impede the enforcement of the Nation's traffic laws — by compelling the police either to take the time to warn all detained motorists of their constitutional rights or to forgo use of self-incriminating statements made by those motorists — while doing little to protect citizens' Fifth Amendment rights.[fn33] The second would enable the police to circumvent the constraints on custodial interrogations established by Miranda.

    Turning to the case before us, we find nothing in the record that indicates that respondent should have been given Miranda warnings at any point prior to the time Trooper Williams placed him under arrest. For the reasons indicated above, we reject the contention that the initial stop of respondent's car, by itself, rendered him "in custody." And respondent has failed to demonstrate that, at any time between the initial stop and the arrest, he was subjected to restraints comparable to those associated with a formal arrest. Only a short period of time elapsed between the stop and the arrest.[fn34] At no point during that interval was respondent informed that his detention would not be temporary. Although Trooper Williams apparently decided as soon as respondent stepped out of his car that respondent would be taken into custody and charged with a traffic offense, Williams never communicated his intention to respondent. A policeman's unarticulated plan has no bearing on the question whether a suspect was "in custody" at a particular time; the only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation.[fn35] Nor do other aspects of the interaction of Williams and respondent support the contention that respondent was exposed to "custodial interrogation" at the scene of the stop. From aught that appears in the stipulation of facts, a single police officer asked respondent a modest number of questions and requested him to perform a simple balancing test at a location visible to passing motorists.[fn36] Treatment of this sort cannot fairly be characterized as the functional equivalent of formal arrest.

    We conclude, in short, that respondent was not taken into custody for the purposes of Miranda until Williams arrested him. Consequently, the statements respondent made prior to that point were admissible against him