A man indicted on firearm possession charges lost his bid to suppress evidence of statements he made while handcuffed, after a split Fifth Circuit panel ruled he wasn’t “in custody” and thus wasn’t entitled to a Miranda warning.
The lone officer who questioned Braylon Ray Coulter for 15 minutes on a “dark street” in the middle of the night employed a “non-threatening, non-aggressive approach” in which handcuffs were used as a precaution for officer safety, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said Monday in a split opinion by Judge Edith H. Jones. A reasonable person in Coulter’s position “would not have equated the situation with formal arrest,” Jones said, agreeing with four other circuits—the First, Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth—that a suspect isn’t necessarily in custody for Miranda purposes when being questioned while handcuffed.
Jones added that even if Coulter could have reasonably thought he was in custody, the environment in which he was questioned “was not tantamount to a station house interrogation as contemplated by Miranda.” She emphasized that the brief encounter took place on the street in front of Coulter’s parents’ home, and the tenor of the officer’s questioning “never became accusatory, much less threatening.”
In addition to writing the majority opinion, Jones filed a separate concurrence that cited the US Supreme Court’s June opinion in Vega v. Tekoh to argue for a “costs and benefits” analysis in cases turning on whether a criminal suspect is “in custody” under Miranda v. Arizona.
Miranda is the 1966 Supreme Court opinion holding that prosecutors can’t rely on statements made by criminal defendants while in custody unless they’ve been informed of various rights. Vega clarified that Miranda is a “prophylactic rule” that’s justified when its benefits outweigh its costs, Jones said. In cases like this, when a three-judge panel is “deeply divided” over whether a suspect is in custody, the judges ought to “consider the costs and benefits of suppressing incriminatory statements,” Jones said.
Judge Priscilla Richman dissented, saying the restraints placed on Coulter during the traffic stop “were of the degree associated with a formal arrest.” Richman emphasized that the officer conducting the traffic stop asked incriminatory questions, restrained Coulter with handcuffs, threatened to tase him, and made other statements suggesting he wasn’t free to end the encounter.
Richman also objected to the “costs and benefits” analysis championed by Jones, saying it would add an additional step to the analysis “so that on a case-by-case basis, courts could decide in a particular case whether the search for truth outweighs the prophylactic purpose of Miranda.”
Judge Cory T. Wilson joined the majority opinion.
John Michael Helms Jr. of Dallas represents Coulter. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas represents the government.
The case is United States v. Coulter, 2022 BL 248481, 5th Cir., No. 20-10999, 7/18/22.