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Consider this scenario: Late one night a highway patrol officer observes a car with its...

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Consider this scenario: Late one night a highway patrol officer observes a car with its right tail light out.

Late one night a highway patrol officer observes a car with its right tail light out. She follows the car, which is traveling very slowly, and after a mile or so, pulls it over. As the officer approaches the car, she observes a driver and passenger; as she nears the driver's side window she smells marijuana smoke. The driver's reactions are very slow, and both driver and passenger appear to be in an advanced stage of intoxication. The officer orders them out of the car and, after confirming that both are seriously physically impaired, she orders them into the back of the cruiser. The officer calls for backup to secure the car and, after the suspect's car has been impounded, the officer drives off toward the station. Along the way, the passenger perks up enough to yell at the driver, "Man, why'd you throw that joint out of the window. I paid $20 for that." Upon making the statement, the passenger seems to fade out.

  • Does the officer have to stop and read the two suspects their Miranda warnings?
  • Would the statement be admissible in court?
  • Why, or why not?

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Miranda warnings are triggered by custody.  A person is in custody when a reasonable person would know that they can no longer walk away from the police.  Being ordered into the back of the officer’s squad car is definitely custody.  As such, the officer should have given the suspects their Miranda warnings.

The absence of Miranda warnings will make the statement of a suspect inadmissible in court IF that statement is made in response to a question or statement that is reasonably likely to lead to an incriminating response.  So if the officer induced the response, the absence of Miranda warnings will prevent him/her from using the response in court.  However, if the suspect just blurts out a confession without any prompting at all, those statements can still be used.

Here, the officer did not make any statements nor ask any questions of the suspects.  Thus, even in the absence of Miranda warnings, the statement about the $20 joint will be admissible in court.  The officer SHOULD immediately stop and give the suspects their Miranda warnings so that any further statements will be admissible as well, as a solid argument could be made that withholding those warnings in hope of further confessions could be action designed to elicit and incriminating response on the officer’s part.  The officer should also give the suspects Miranda warnings when they are in a more lucid state, as they are presently clearly unable to understand the Miranda warnings or exercise their rights.

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