The Applicability of Miranda Warnings to Traffic Stops

After watching decades of police drama television shows, most of us are familiar with the so-called Miranda warnings. These are the warnings that a police officer often gives a person they are charging with a crime, and can probably be recited by many. “You have the right to remain silent.” “Anything you say can, and will, be used against in court.” “You have the right to an attorney.” “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you without cost.” “You have the right to have an attorney present during any questioning;” and so on….. However, most people are not aware of what these rights really mean and how they affect criminal charges that arise from being stopped for a traffic violation.

In my practice I am frequently asked by new clients who are charged with DWI if the charges should be dismissed because the officer who charged never gave them their Miranda rights. Unfortunately, the answer is usually no. Just because an officer failed to advise you of these rights, does not mean the charges are automatically subject to dismissal, or that you cannot be convicted of them. The confusion likes come from the distinction between the general understanding of these rights by the public and their actual application under the law.

Miranda Warnings

The United States Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals has determined that the recitation of these rights is only necessary in situations involving custodial interrogation. This means that these rights must only be told to a person who is: (1) in legal custody and (2) being subjected to interrogation whereby the officer is attempting to elicit incriminating statements from the person. Failure to properly advise a person of these rights can lead to a court suppressing (or “throwing out”) any statements that the person makes to the officer, if the court determines that the statements were not voluntarily given after having been advised of these rights.

So what does this mean in the context of a traffic stop? The answer is that in many traffic stops, the motorist is not considered to be in a “custodial interrogation” situation and the requirement of Miranda warnings is not triggered. In Berkimer v. McCarthy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that because most traffic stops are short in duration and occur in a public setting, the “noncoercive 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.” Similarly, the New York Court of Appeals held in People v. McMillan, that “Miranda warnings are not required at the scene of a possible traffic violation because an investigation has just begun and the defendant was not in custody.”

Consistent with these decisions, the courts of New York state have held that an officer can ask basic investigatory questions of a motorist whom they have stopped for an alleged traffic violation including what happened to cause an accident, their ownership of a vehicle and whether or not they have been drinking alcohol prior to driving. As a result, most of the initial incriminating statements that a motorist makes to a police officer during a DWI investigation (whether they were driving, what, when and how much they have had drink, etc.) occur during the initial investigatory stage of a traffic stop, before the need to inform the motorist of his Miranda rights has been triggered.

Miranda Warnings

So while most statements made to an officer during a traffic stop may not be subject to suppression, there are many factors that play into how a court will treat such statements and whether they can be used against you in court. This is particularly true if these statements were made after the police officer had made a determination that the motorist was intoxicated and places them under arrest for DWI.

If you are charged with a DWI, it is important that you know your rights – not just think you know your rights. Our team of experienced DWI lawyers at Green & Brenneck have a thorough understanding of your rights and know how they apply in your particular case. If you’re facing DWI charges, contact us to discuss your rights and ensure yourself the best possible defense.