High Court Rules on Miranda Issue : Declares Police Need Not Read Rights in Routine Traffic Stops

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police may question suspected drunk drivers on the roadside without warning them of their rights to remain silent or to have a lawyer.

On a 7-2 vote, the justices said that during “ordinary traffic stops” a motorist is not in police custody and therefore “is not entitled to a recitation of his constitutional rights prior to arrest.”

The ruling, in an unsigned three-page opinion, reverses a Pennsylvania court decision that said a motorist is in police custody when he is ordered to get out of his car and recite the alphabet. The decision upholds the status quo in most states, including California.

Observes Behavior


Typically, a police officer will question a motorist and observe his behavior if he believes that the driver is drunk. Once the officer has enough information to arrest the driver, he will warn him of his right to remain silent and that any statements he makes may be used against him in court.

In the 1965 case of Miranda vs. Arizona, the high court sought to prevent coerced confessions in jail houses by requiring police to tell a suspect that he could refuse to answer all questions and could have a lawyer present before making any statement.

In recent years, the more conservative court majority has carefully limited the Miranda rule to instances in which a suspect is clearly in police custody and not situations in which police briefly question a potential suspect. But the court also acknowledged Monday that it has not set “an absolute rule” to distinguish when a person is “in custody” and when he is simply being questioned by a police officer.

Not Free to Leave


The Pennsylvania court had concluded that the motorist in this case, Thomas Bruder Jr. of suburban Philadelphia, was in custody because he was not free to leave.

In the early morning of Jan. 19, 1985, Bruder had been stopped for driving erratically. An officer, smelling alcohol on his breath, asked Bruder to walk a straight line and then recite the alphabet. When Bruder stumbled through both tests, the officer placed him under arrest, took him to his squad car and gave him the standard Miranda warnings.

A judge found Bruder guilty of drunk driving, leading to a jail term of between 48 hours and six months. But a three-judge appeals panel ordered a new trial, ruling that the police officer should have given Bruder the Miranda warnings before asking him to recite the alphabet. The state court reasoned that the man was in custody when ordered out of the car.

Moreover, reciting the alphabet was “testimonial in nature,” akin to answering questions in a jail-house interview. When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of this conclusion, the state appealed to the high court.

Prolonged Interrogation

Without bothering to hear arguments in the case (Pennsylvania vs. Bruder, 88-161), the Supreme Court ruled for the state and the police officer. The Miranda rule was intended to apply to suspects undergoing “a prolonged station house interrogation,” not to “persons temporarily detained” to answer a few questions, the court said.

Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens dissented, saying that Bruder was in the control of the police when ordered out of his car.

In other actions, the court:


--Closed the door to further judicial review of the wartime detention of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. In August, President Reagan signed legislation providing a $20,000 tax-free payment to survivors of the internees as partial compensation for their loss. But the Supreme Court, which upheld the government’s action in 1943, has never reconsidered its decision on the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans.

On Monday, the justices without comment rejected an appeal by 19 survivors seeking to sue the government for loss of property. U.S. attorneys and lower courts said that the suit was barred by a six-year statute of limitations. The survivors contended that the issue should be reopened because in 1982, documents were discovered suggesting that U.S. military officials deliberately deceived the high court in 1943 about the danger posed by Japanese-Americans in California (Hohri vs. U.S., 88-215).

--Set the stage for a classic fight between the President and Congress on who will control the standards for disclosing classified information. The Reagan Administration says that the President and his advisers should decide who sees classified information. Congress has responded with a bill saying that the President may not limit disclosures to authorized members of Congress.

Last year, however, a federal judge in Washington struck down this law on the grounds that it “intrudes dramatically upon presidential authority.” The high court said it will review that conclusion in a case to be heard next spring (American Foreign Service Assn. vs Garfinkel, 87-2127).

--Agreed to decide whether states must provide lawyers for Death Row inmates who seek to appeal their convictions. In June, an appellate court ruled that Virginia was violating the constitutional rights of these inmates by not giving them lawyers to fashion post-conviction appeals. Twenty states, including California, joined Virginia in contesting that conclusion (Murray vs. Giarratano, 88-411).