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

  1. We are left with the question of the appropriate remedy. In his brief, petitioner contends that, if we agree with the Court of Appeals that respondent's post-arrest statements should have been suppressed but conclude that respondent's prearrest statements were admissible, we should reverse the Court of Appeals' judgement on the ground that the state trial court's erroneous refusal to exclude the post-arrest admissions constituted "harmless error" within the meaning of Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). Relying on Milton v. Wainwright, 407 U.S. 371 (1972), petitioner argues that the statements made by respondent at the police station "were merely recitations of what respondent had already admitted at the scene of the traffic arrest" and therefore were unnecessary to his conviction. Brief for Petitioner 25. We reject this proposed disposition of the case for three cumulative reasons.

    First, the issue of harmless error was not presented to any of the Ohio Courts, to the District Court, or to the Court of Appeals.[fn37] Though, when reviewing a judgement of a federal court, we have jurisdiction to consider an issue not raised below, see Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 17, n. 2 (1980), we are generally reluctant to do so, Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 147, n. 2 (1970).[fn38]

    Second, the admissions respondent made at the scene of the traffic stop and the statements he made at the police station were not identical. Most importantly, though respondent at the scene admitted having recently drunk beer and smoked marihuana, not until questioned at the station did he acknowledge being under the influence of intoxicants, an essential element of the crime for which he was convicted.[fn39] This fact assumes significance in view of the failure of the intoxilyzer test to discern any alcohol in his blood.

    Third, the case arises in a procedural posture that makes the use of harmless-error analysis especially difficult.[fn40] This is not a case in which a defendant, after denial of a suppression motion, is given a full trial resulting in his conviction. Rather, after the trial court ruled that all of respondent's self-incriminating statements were admissible, respondent elected not to contest the prosecution's case against him, while preserving his objection to the denial of his pretrial motion.[fn41] As a result, respondent has not yet had an opportunity to try to impeach the State's evidence or to present evidence of his own. For example, respondent alleges that, at the time of his arrest, he had an injured back and a limp[fn42] and that those ailments accounted for his difficulty getting out of the car and performing the balancing test; because he pleaded "no contest," he never had a chance to make that argument to a jury. It is difficult enough, on the basis of a complete record of a trial and the parties' contentions regarding the relative importance of each portion of the evidence presented, to determine whether the erroneous admission of particular material affected the outcome. Without the benefit of such a record in this case, we decline to rule that the trial court's refusal to suppress respondent's post-arrest statements "was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt." See Chapman v. California, 386 U.S., at 24.

Accordingly, the judgement of the Court of Appeals is Affirmed.

The Honorable Justice STEVENS, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

The only question presented by the petition for certiorari reads as follows:

"Whether law enforcement officers must give ' Miranda warnings' to individuals arrested for misdemeanor traffic offenses."

In Parts I, II, and IV of its opinion, the Court answers that question in the affirmative and explains why that answer requires that the judgement of the Court of Appeals be affirmed. Part III of the Court's opinion is written for the purpose of discussing the admissibility of statements made by respondent "prior to his formal arrest," see ante, at 435. That discussion is not necessary to the disposition of the case, nor necessary to answer the only question presented by the certiorari petition. Indeed, the Court of Appeals quite properly did not pass on the question answered in Part III since it was entirely unnecessary to the judgement in this case. It thus wisely followed the cardinal rule that a court should not pass on a constitutional question in advance of the necessity of deciding it. See, e. g., Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

Lamentably, this Court fails to follow the course of judicial restraint that we have set for the entire federal judiciary. In this case, it appears the reason for reaching out to decide a question not passed upon below and unnecessary to the judgement is that the answer to the question upon which we granted review is so clear under our settled precedents that the majority — its appetite for deciding constitutional questions only whetted — is driven to serve up a more delectable issue to satiate it. I had thought it clear, however, that no matter how interesting or potentially important a determination on a question of constitutional law may be, "broad considerations of the appropriate exercise of judicial power prevent such determinations unless actually compelled by the litigation before the Court." Barr v. Matteo, 355 U.S. 171, 172 (1957) (per curiam). Indeed, this principle of restraint grows in importance the more problematic the constitutional issue is. See New York v. Uplinger, 467 U.S. 246, 251 (1984) (STEVENS, J., concurring).

Because I remain convinced that the Court should abjure the practice of reaching out to decide cases on the broadest grounds possible, e. g., United States v. Doe, 465 U.S. 605, 619-620 (1984) (STEVENS, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); Grove City College v. Bell, 465 U.S. 555, 579 (1984) (STEVENS, J., concurring in part and concurring in result); Colorado v. Nunez, 465 U.S. 324, 327-328 (1984) (STEVENS, J., concurring); United States v. Gouveia, 467 U.S. 180, 193 (1984) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment); Firefighters v. Stotts, 467 U.S. 561, 590-591 (1984) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment); see also, University of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 411-412 (1978) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgement in part and dissenting in part); Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 714 (1978) (STEVENS, J., concurring in part); cf. Snepp v. United States, 444 U.S. 507, 524-525 (1980) (STEVENS, J., dissenting), I do not join Part III of the Court's opinion.