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Rhode Island Supreme Court: DUI Suspect Was in ‘Custody’ so Un-Mirandized Roadside Statements Properly Suppressed

by Mark Wilson

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island upheld a lower court’s suppression of un-Mirandized statements made to police, finding that the defendant was in custody at the scene of an automobile collision.

On October 23, 2018, Joseph Corcoran’s vehicle struck a light pole on a Rhode Island highway off ramp. When Officer Nichols arrived at the scene, a witness informed him that he smelled alcohol when he checked on Corcoran. Nichols approached Corcoran’s vehicle and observed that the airbag had deployed, prompting him to request an ambulance even though Corcoran appeared to be uninjured and stated so.

Nichols reported noticing the telltale signs of intoxication. Corcoran’s eyes were bloodshot and watery, his speech was slurred, and his breath smelled of alcohol. Without first reading Corcoran his Miranda rights, Nichols asked him “if he had consumed any alcoholic beverages.” Corcoran said no. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Nichols then instructed Corcoran to move to the front of his vehicle and informed him that he had “suspicions that [Corcoran] had been drinking” despite his initial denial, and Nichols asked him again “if he had been drinking.” At that point, Corcoran admitted to drinking “two beers.”

A “backup” officer, Officer Toscano, arrived on the scene, and an ambulance also arrived, parking about ten feet in front of Corcoran’s vehicle. Nichols administered field sobriety tests, which indicated Corcoran was impaired.

The witness advised that he saw Corcoran throw something into the woods, so Nichols asked Corcoran whether he had thrown anything into the woods. He said no. Toscano searched the area and found a paper bag containing three empty 42-ounce bottles of high-alcohol-content beer. When asked again, Corcoran admitted to throwing the bag into the woods. Corcoran then consented to a preliminary breath test, which registered a reading of 0.201, and he was placed under arrest “for suspicion of DUI.” At all times during the roadside events, an officer was physically located near Corcoran. All statements and admissions made by Corcoran prior to being arrested are collectively referred to as “Accident Scene Statements.”

After placing Corcoran under arrest, Nichols read the “Rights For Use of Scene” card to Corcoran. Upon arrival at the police station, Nichols read the “Rights For Use At Station/Hospital” form to Corcoran, and Nichols proceeded to fill out an “Influence Report Form” by asking Corcoran a series of questions, whereby he admitted to driving a vehicle, drinking two 40-ounce beers, and being under the influence of alcohol. All statements and admissions in the Form are collectively referred to as “Recorded Statements.”

Corcoran was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. He filed a motion to suppress his Accident Scene Statements as being the result of a custodial interrogation without having been properly advised of his Miranda rights. He also sought the suppression of his Recorded Statements, arguing that the rights card and form read to him failed to adequately advise him of his Miranda rights. The trial court suppressed his Accident Scene Statements, agreeing with Corcoran because “no reasonable person would feel as though he was free to leave the scene.” The court also suppressed his Recorded Statements as “fruits of the poisonous tree.” The State appealed. 

The Court noted that both the U.S. and Rhode Island Constitutions prohibit the use of involuntary confessions. State v. Monteiro, 924 A.2d 784 (R.I. 2007). In order for the State to use a confession at trial, it bears the burden of establishing “by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant knowingly and intelligently waived his or her right against self-incrimination.” Id. To protect a defendant’s right against self-incrimination, “prior to custodial interrogation a suspect must receive explicit warnings concerning his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination and his right to counsel.” State v. Amado, 424 A.2d 1057 (R.I. 1981); see Miranda.

But, the Court explained, Miranda warnings, and exclusion of statements in violation of Miranda, are only required during a custodial police interrogation. See State v. Edwards, 810 A.2d 226 (R.I. 2002). Short of arrest, a person is in custody “if, in view of all the circumstances, a reasonable person would believe that he or she is not free to leave.” State v. Vieira, 913 A.2d 1015 (R.I. 2007). In making this determination, courts consider the following factors: “(1) the extent to which the person’s freedom is curtailed; (2) the degree of force employed by the police; (3) the belief of a reasonable, innocent person in identical circumstances; and (4) whether the person had the option of not accompanying the police.” State v. Diaz, 654 A.2d 1195 (R.I. 1995); see Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984) (instructing that a person is in custody when “deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way”) (quoting Miranda).  

Turning to the present case, the Court concluded that Corcoran was in police custody at the time he made his Accident Scene Statements. The Court based this conclusion on the many detailed facts that led the officers to suspect Corcoran of DUI leading up to his eventual arrest. In particular, it gave great weight to the fact that an officer remained with him “at all times,” noting that although he wasn’t subject to physical force, his “freedom of movement was curtailed by the watchful accompaniment” of the officers. See United States v. Mittel-Carey, 493 F.3d 36 (1st Cir. 2007) (the custody calculus includes the physical control officers exerted over the defendant who was escorted by officers on the three occasions he was permitted to move to different areas in his home). Additionally, it’s significant that Nichols advised Corcoran that he suspected him of being untruthful and that he had been drinking. See Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318 (an officer’s undisclosed subjective view that a person being questioned is a suspect has no bearing on the custody determination, but that’s not the case where such suspicion is “communicated or otherwise manifested to the person being questioned”). Under these facts, the Court determined that “a factfinder could conclude that no reasonable person would feel free to leave.” Thus, the Court ruled that the trial court correctly suppressed Corcoran’s Accident Scene Statements.

Regarding the Recorded Statements, the Court ruled that their suppression was not properly before it for consideration because the trial court’s suppression was based on them being “fruits of the poisonous tree,” the court didn’t reach the sufficiency of the warnings actually provided, and the State failed to address the “fruits of the poisonous tree” rationale on appeal. Thus, the Court declined “to reach this issue and take no position on its correctness.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s suppression order. See: State v. Corcoran, 274 A.3d 808 (R.I. 2022). 

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