Today marks the 34th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Berkemer v. McCarty. The Berkemer guaranteed the protections afforded by “Miranda Warnings” for all offenses, from the most serious felonies, to the most minor traffic offenses.
The case behind Berkemer demonstrates why a Supreme Court ruling on this issue was sorely needed. On March 31st, 1980, Ohio State Highway patrol pulled over Mr. Richard McCarty. Mr. McCarty has been observed weaving between lanes down IH 270. The patrol officer asked Mr. McCarty to exit the vehicle, and the officer observed Mr. McCarty struggling to stand. At that time, the officer decided he would arrest Mr. McCarty for his traffic offense. The officer asked Mr. McCarty if he had anything to drink, and Mr. McCarty responded he had drank two beers and smoked several marijuana joints prior to driving. The officer then asked Mr. McCarty to perform a balancing test, a forerunner of today’s Field Sobriety Test. Mr. McCarty failed the test, and was arrested.
At the police station, Mr. McCarty was subjected to a breathalyzer which revealed he had no alcohol in his system. The officer than Asked Mr. McCarty is he was under the influence of alcohol, which Mr. McCarty responded, “I guess barley”. At no point during his arrest was Mr. McCarty given his “Miranda Warning”
Mr. McCarty was charged with DWI, and faced a fine and up to six months in jail. Mr. McCarty sought to have his pre, and post arrest statements excluded from evidence on the basis that he had not been informed of his “Miranda Warning”. The trial court denied his motion to suppress, and Mr. McCarty plead nolo contendere to the charge. On appeal, Mr. McCarty once again argued his statements should be suppressed for want of a “Miranda Warning”. The appeals court denied his appeal relying on an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that held “Miranda Warnings” do not need to be given for misdemeanor offenses. Mr. McCarty once again appealed his case to the Ohio Supreme Court who denied his appeal without a hearing for failing to raise a substantial constitutional question.
After exhausting all of his state appeals, Mr. McCarty applied for a writ of habeas corpus to The District Court for the Southern District of Ohio who dismissed his writ. However, Mr. McCarty appealed again and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his conviction holding that the Trial court had misapplied the ruling in Miranda by failing to give warnings for all offenses. The State of Ohio appealed the Appeals Court Decision, and sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court who granted cert in early 1984. At the time, many State Supreme Courts had made exceptions to Miranda for misdemeanor offenses.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on February 28th, 1984, and focused arguments on two primary questions. First, the Supreme Court wanted to address if the officer had violated Miranda by failing to give a “Miranda Warning” at the beginning of the traffic stop before the incriminating statements were made. The second issue was whether the officer violated Miranda by failing to give a “Miranda Warning” before the incriminating statements were given at the station house.
Mr. McCarty argued that the officer’s failure to provide a “Miranda Warning” at the beginning of the traffic stop should lead to all of his statements being suppressed. Mr. McCarty further argued that custodial interrogation, the key to when “Miranda Warnings” are triggered, began as soon as he was stopped for a traffic offense. Finally, Mr. McCarty argued that his statements at the station house were clearly made during custodial interrogation, and because Miranda did not create an exception for the level of offense, his statements at the station must be suppressed regardless of the level of the offense.
The State argued that there should be an exception to the “Miranda Warning” requirement for minor traffic offenses. The State also argued that a traffic stop is not a custodial interrogation for the purpose of “Miranda Warnings”.
On July 2nd, 1984, the Supreme Court rendered its judgment. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court addressed both of the issues raised. Led by Justice Thurgood Marshall, the opinion rejected the states argument for an exception to Miranda for misdemeanor offenses. The Court reasoned the officers often do not know whether a person has committed a felony or a misdemeanor, and as such an exception to Miranda for misdemeanors would undermine the holding of Miranda.
The Court went on to distinguish between the Statements made by Mr. McCarty at the traffic stop, and the station house. The Court agreed that Mr. McCarty’s statements made in the station house ought to be suppressed as he was clearly under custodial interrogation. However, The Court disagreed that Mr. McCarty was under custodial interrogation at the time of the traffic stop. Thus, The Supreme Court held that suspects are not entitled to a “Miranda Warning” during a traffic stop, only after a formal arrest or its functional equivalent had occurred. Finally, the Supreme Court affirmed the 6th Circuits reversal of Mr. McCarty’s conviction.
Ironically, the opinion of the Supreme Court was authored by Justice Thurgood Marshall who, had argued against the adoption of the “Miranda Warning” as Solicitor General just 18 years earlier in Miranda v. Arizona.
The holding in Berkemer created two important rules of criminal law. First, you are not entitled to a “Miranda Warning” during a traffic stop until you are under formal arrest or its functional equivalent. Second, you are entitled to a “Miranda Warning” for all offense once you have been formally arrested. Experienced Legal Representation can help you guarantee that your rights guaranteed in the “Miranda Warning” are protected.
Written By Hunter White
 Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 104 S. Ct. 3138 (1984)
 Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602 (1966)