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Ohio Supreme Court To Decide If Questioning In The Front Seat Of A Police Cruiser Is A Custodial Interrogation Or Investigative Questioning

The Ohio Supreme Court recently heard arguments in City of Cleveland v. Benjamin Oles to decide whether Miranda warnings are required for questioning of a suspect removed from his vehicle and placed in the front seat of a police cruiser during an OVI investigation.

Issue: Does investigative questioning of a person in a trooper's front seat during a traffic stop rise to the level of a custodial interrogation triggering the protections guaranteed by the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona?

Background: Oles was originally stopped by a State Trooper for a marked lanes violation. While talking to Oles during the stop, the trooper smelled alcohol and asked Oles to move to the front seat of his cruiser. The trooper then questioned Oles, conducted field sobriety tests and arrested Oles for OVI. Oles moved to suppress the evidence from the traffic stop, arguing that he was in police custody once he was seated in the cruiser, which required the trooper to advise him of his Miranda rights. The trial court agreed with Oles and suppressed his statements to the trooper and the field sobriety test results.

City Appeals: The City of Cleveland appealed the trial court but the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the suppression. After the Eighth District noted the conflict with cases decided by other state appellate courts, the Ohio Supreme Court accepted the case for review.

Argument against custody: The City of Cleveland argues that questioning a suspect in the front seat of a police vehicle does not amount to a custodial interrogation or trigger Miranda warnings. In support, the city relies on Berkemer v. McCarty where the United States Supreme Court held that the determination of whether a person is in custody depends on how a reasonable person in the suspect's position would have understood the situation. In Berkemer, the Supreme Court found that because the person was only temporarily detained during the traffic stop he was not in custody and did not need to be Mirandized.

Argument in support of custody: Oles counters that when he was stopped for the traffic violation, questioned by the trooper, moved to the trooper's cruiser, and questioned further, he was in custody. In support of his argument, Oles relies on State v. Farris, where the officer in that case conducted a pat-down of Farris, removed his car keys, instructed him to sit in police cruiser and planned to search his car. In that case, Ohio Supreme Court held that a reasonable person in Farris' position would have considered himself to be in police custody, requiring Miranda warnings.

Conclusion: Whether Supreme Court decides that Oles was subjected to custodial interrogation or investigative questioning, the impact of the Court's decision will be significant. Should the Court decide that it was a custodial interrogation, requiring Miranda warnings, police agencies will view the decision as a burden, limiting their investigative powers. Should the Court decide that it was an investigative questioning, not requiring Miranda warnings, defense attorneys will view the decision as eroding the standard for being in custody and marginalizing Miranda rights. 

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