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State v. Catarra


August 7, 2009


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Indictment No. 08-02-85.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 28, 2009

Before Judges Payne and Waugh.

By leave granted, the State appeals from an order of the trial court suppressing statements made by defendant, Reyna Catarra, prior to being informed of her Miranda*fn1 rights.

On appeal, the State argues:



The record discloses that, on September 25, 2007, at approximately 6:12 p.m., defendant was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident resulting in injury to the other driver, Josephine Forestiere. State troopers Bogdan and Savnik, together with emergency vehicles and personnel, were called to the scene. Upon the troopers' arrival, Bogdan was informed by Forestiere, who remained trapped in her vehicle, that Catarra had crossed the center line of the highway and had hit her. An independent witness confirmed Forestiere's version of the accident.

Bogdan then proceeded to the location of defendant's car, which was stopped approximately 500 feet from that of Forestiere. Damage to the front left corner of the car was visible, and a door from the Forestiere's vehicle was seen beneath defendant's car. Defendant was seated on the grass by the side of the road being attended to by emergency medical personnel.

After defendant had been medically cleared, Bogdan asked her if she was all right and, then, what had happened. Bogdan responded that she did not remember what had taken place, and that she recalled only a loud bang, at which point the airbags deployed. Bogdan then asked defendant if she had had anything to drink, repeating the question three times, and then asking three times if she had consumed any alcohol. Defendant finally stated that she had drunk one martini. In response to a question by Bogdan, defendant also enumerated her various medications, but stated that she had not taken any of them since the prior night. Defendant's responses were slurred, and she was unable to stand without considerable assistance. A video camera recorded this aspect of the incident.

Shortly thereafter, Bogdan began administering sobriety tests on defendant at a location outside the range of the video camera, but within range of its microphone, which recorded defendant's evidently drunken comments to the police. Defendant was unable to perform any of the tests, and as a consequence, she was arrested. During the course of the drive to the police station, Miranda warnings were administered. At the station, defendant was unable to complete an Alcotest, never producing an adequate breath sample, despite multiple attempts to do so.

Defendant was charged with driving while intoxicated, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50; refusal to take a breath test, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.2; failure to keep right, N.J.S.A. 39:4-82; and reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96. Subsequently, on September 25, 2007, defendant was charged with the third-degree crime of assault by automobile while driving in an intoxicated state. N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1c(2). Evidence disclosed that Forestiere had sustained a broken hand and multiple lacerations in the crash.

Following indictment, defendant moved for suppression of the statements made by her to the police. A hearing took place, at which Trooper Bogdan testified and the video of the incident was replayed. In a subsequent thoughtful written decision, the trial judge granted defendant's suppression motion, determining that the trooper was authorized to ask defendant what had happened, but that any further questioning regarding alcohol consumption that was likely to produce incriminating statements had to have been prefaced with Miranda warnings. In reaching this conclusion, the judge distinguished the circumstances presented from a routine traffic stop during which Miranda warnings are not required, noting that the troopers were instead "investigating a major traffic accident, one that could and did result in criminal charges." As a consequence of his determination that crucial Miranda warnings had not been given, the judge suppressed all testimonial responses by defendant to the trooper prior to being advised of her Miranda rights, as well as video evidence of those responses. He permitted "any non-testimonial recordation of the physical condition and activities of the defendant."

We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal. State v. Alfano, 305 N.J. Super. 178, 190 (App. Div. 1997).

On appeal, the State argues that Miranda warnings are required only when the defendant is subjected to a custodial interrogation and, at the time Bogdan was questioning defendant, she was not "in custody." The State argues additionally that the questioning constituted an investigatory procedure, not an interrogation.

We address first whether defendant was in custody at the time that she was questioned by Bogdan. In its decision in Miranda, the Supreme Court held:

[The] prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of [a] defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination. By custodial interrogation, we mean questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way. [Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 1612, 16 L.Ed. 2d 694, 706 (1966).]

At the suppression hearing in this matter, the following exchange occurred between defense counsel and Trooper Bogdan:

Q: Turn your attention back to the very beginning of the video when you walked up and said, have you had a drink, yes or no, if Ms. Catarra at that point had said, Trooper, I don't want to answer questions, I'm leaving now, would she have been free to leave?

A: No, sir.

The issue before us is whether this lack of freedom, derived at least in part from the statute prohibiting defendant from leaving the scene of an accident, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1.1, rendered defendant in custody for purposes of Miranda.

In a related context, the United States Supreme Court has held, as the trial judge recognized, that detention and questioning of a motorist during the course of a routine traffic stop does not constitute custodial interrogation requiring the administration of Miranda warnings, although the stop constitutes a "seizure" for Fourth Amendment purposes. See Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 435-43, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 3147-52, 82 L.Ed. 2d 317, 331-36 (1984); see also Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1396, 59 L.Ed. 2d 660, 667 (1979) (holding a traffic stop constitutes a seizure). In finding such questioning not to be sufficiently coercive to trigger Miranda's application, the Court noted that "the detention of a motorist pursuant to a traffic stop is presumptively temporary and brief" and thus different from a station house interrogation. Berkemer, supra, 468 U.S. at 437, 104 S.Ct. at 3149, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 333. Additionally, the Court observed that "circumstances associated with the typical traffic stop are not such that the motorist feels completely at the mercy of the police" because the typical traffic stop is public, and usually conducted by one or two policemen, and thus substantially less "police dominated" than the interrogations at issue in Miranda. Id. at 438-39, 104 S.Ct. at 3149, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 333-34. In those respects, the Court found that a usual traffic stop was more analogous to a Terry*fn2 stop, where "officers may ask the detainee a moderate number of questions to determine his identity and to try to obtain information confirming or dispelling the officer's suspicions," than a formal arrest. Id. at 439-40, 104 S.Ct. at 3150, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 334-35.

The Berkemer Court rejected concerns that exempting traffic stops from Miranda's purview would foster abuse by the police. It stated:

It is settled that the safeguards prescribed by Miranda become applicable as soon as a suspect's freedom of action is curtailed to a "degree associated with formal arrest."

California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1125[, 103 S.Ct. 3517, 3520, 77 L.Ed. 2d 1275, 1279] (1983) (per curiam). If a motorist who has been detained pursuant to a traffic stop thereafter is subjected to treatment that renders him "in custody" for practical purposes, he will be entitled to the full panoply of protections prescribed by Miranda, See Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 495[, 97 S.Ct. 711, 714, 50 L.Ed. 2d 714, 719] (1977) (per curiam). [Berkemer, supra, 468 U.S. at 440, 104 S.Ct. at 3150, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 335.]

Turning to the facts before it, the Court held that nothing indicated that the defendant should have been given Miranda warnings at any point prior to actual arrest, noting that he was not subjected to "restraints comparable to those associated with a formal arrest," only a short period of time elapsed, and defendant was never informed that his detention would be anything but temporary. Id. at 441-42, 104 S.Ct. at 3151, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 335-36. Significantly, the Court additionally observed:

Although Trooper Williams apparently decided as soon as respondent stepped out of his car that respondent would be taken into custody and charged with a traffic offense, Williams never communicated his intention to respondent. A policeman's unarticulated plan has no bearing on the question whether a suspect was 'in custody' at a particular time; the only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood his situation. [Id. at 442, 104 S.Ct. at 3151, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 336.]

Further, the Court found nothing else in the facts suggesting that the defendant was exposed to a custodial interrogation, noting that a single police officer had asked the defendant "a modest number of questions," including whether he had been using intoxicants, and had "requested him to perform a simple balancing test at a location visible to passing motorists." Ibid. According to the Court, "[t]reatment of this sort cannot fairly be characterized as the functional equivalent of formal arrest." Ibid.

Our state courts have taken a similar approach to that of Berkemer in determining that a detainee need not be advised of his Miranda rights during the course of an ordinary traffic stop. See State v. Baum, 393 N.J. Super. 275, 291 (App. Div. 2007) (driver, isolated from passengers and subjected to questioning that included whether drugs were in the car, was not subjected to custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings), aff'd and modified on other grounds, 199 N.J. 407 (2009); State v. Hickman, 335 N.J. Super. 623, 631 (App. Div. 2000) ("Roadside questioning of a motorist is not transformed into 'custodial interrogation' that must be preceded by Miranda warnings simply because a police officer's questioning is accusatory in nature or designed to elicit incriminating evidence."); cf. State v. Green, 209 N.J. Super. 347, 349-54 (App. Div. 1986) (holding Miranda does not apply to field sobriety testing).

We find of particular significance in this regard our decision in State v. Toro, 229 N.J. Super. 215 (App. Div. 1988), certif. denied, 118 N.J. 216 (1989), overruled on other grounds, State v. Velez, 119 N.J. 185 (1990). In that case, defendant was stopped in a routine manner for suspected driving under the influence. However, after the stop had occurred, the police observed a package that they surmised contained narcotics. Defendant was then ordered out of the car, patted down and questioned regarding the contents of the package. When he admitted it contained cocaine, defendant was arrested. On appeal from his conviction for drug offenses, we sustained the admissibility of defendant's statement, despite the absence of Miranda warnings. In doing so, we discussed the Supreme Court's decision in Berkemer, concluding that, in a roadside stop context, "the police may conduct general on-the scene questioning of a suspect, as authorized by Terry v. Ohio, without giving Miranda warnings." 229 N.J. Super. at 220. We then found that any questioning of defendant prior to ordering him from the car would have been permissible under Berkemer's principles. However, we found that the stop departed from the routine when the police, having observed the package at defendant's feet, ordered him from the car and patted him down. While we recognized that defendant's freedom of movement was at that point "restricted in a more substantial manner than in a routine motor vehicle stop," we held that "his freedom of action was not 'curtailed to a "degree associated with formal arrest."'" Toro, supra, 229 N.J. Super. at 221 (quoting Berkemer, supra, 468 U.S. at 440, 104 S.Ct. at 3150, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 335, quoting Beheler, supra, 463 U.S. at 1125, 103 S.Ct. at 3520, 77 L.Ed. 2d at 1279). We stated:

Defendant was not told that he was under arrest, he was not handcuffed and he was not subjected to any search beyond a patdown for weapons. Furthermore, defendant was detained only briefly before he was asked about the contents of the package, and the police questioning consisted of only a few, non-coercive questions. "Treatment of this sort cannot fairly be characterized as the functional equivalent of formal arrest." Berkemer v. McCarthy, supra, 468 U.S. at 442, 104 S.Ct. at 3152[, 82 L.Ed. 2d at 336]. [Toro, supra, 229 N.J. Super. at 221.]

In light of the precedent that we have discussed, we conclude that, in the present case, defendant was not in custody at the time that she was questioned by Trooper Bogdan. In this regard, we are satisfied that defendant was not subjected to "restraints comparable to those associated with a formal arrest," Beheler, supra, 463 U.S. at 1125, 103 S.Ct. at 3520, 77 L.Ed. 2d at 1279. That defendant looked to be drunk and thus was likely to be arrested was not material in the circumstances because, as in Berkemer, the trooper never communicated to defendant his intention to arrest her.

What is determinative in this context is whether a reasonable person in defendant's circumstances would conclude that, after a brief period of questioning, she would be free to leave. State v. Pierson, 223 N.J. Super. 62, 67 (App. Div. 1988). As we held in Pierson, an evaluation of whether a person has been sufficiently deprived of her freedom to trigger Miranda requires a case-by-case analysis, considering factors such as "the duration of the detention, the nature and degree of the pressure applied to detain the individual, the physical surroundings of the questioning and the language used by the officer in summoning the individual." Ibid. Here, the detention was relatively short, its duration having been extended primarily by defendant's inability to cooperate, not the trooper's questions, which were relatively few. No pressure was exerted on defendant to detain her, per se, although she was required to undergo field sobriety testing. The detention occurred outdoors and in the presence of other, disinterested individuals. And the language used by the trooper, albeit firm, was in no manner coercive, harassing or intimidating.

As the United States Supreme Court held in a case involving voluntary station house questioning:

[P]olice officers are not required to administer Miranda warnings to everyone whom they question. Nor is the requirement of warnings to be imposed simply because... the questioned person is one whom the police suspect. Miranda warnings are required only where there has been such a restriction on a person's freedom as to render him "in custody." It was that sort of coercive environment to which Miranda by its terms was made applicable, and to which it is limited. [Mathiason, supra, 429 U.S. at 495, 97 S.Ct. at 714, 50 L.Ed. 2d at 719.]

In the present case, the restraints placed on defendant were less than those existing in Toro, where we found custodial interrogation to be absent. We thus conclude, despite the trooper's admission that defendant in fact was not free to leave, she was not "in custody" at the time he questioned her. A "significant deprivation of [defendant's] freedom of action" was not demonstrated in this case. State v. Stott, 171 N.J. 343, 365 (2002); State v. P.Z., 152 N.J. 86, 103 (1997).

Additionally, we are satisfied that the limited questioning of defendant by Trooper Bogdan as to what had occurred and whether defendant had been drinking did not constitute interrogation, but rather the type of field inquiry permitted by Berkemer. See also Toro, supra, 229 N.J. Super. at 220.


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