Braylon Coulter was driving an old van with squeaky brakes through a neighborhood at 2:41 a.m. on July 15, 2018. Officer Nino de Guzman of the Lancaster, Texas Police Department began following Coulter and discovered that the van was registered to an address in a different city, that its registration was expired, and that it had no insurance. Guzman thought Coulter might have been a burglar and decided to pull him over.
After Coulter voluntarily stepped out of the van, Guzman twice asked him whether he had any guns. Coulter said “[m]m-mm” before answering no. Guzman then frisked Coulter before asking him who owned the van and where he came from. Coulter replied that it belonged to his boss and that he just left work. When Guzman also asked Coulter for identification, he admitted to not having any. Guzman then conducted a background check and learned that Coulter’s driver’s license was suspended.
Coulter also disclosed that he was on parole for aggravated robbery. Following that admission, Guzman asked Coulter for a third time whether he had a gun. Coulter once again insisted that he did not and then added that he did not own the van. Guzman inquired more broadly as to whether anything illegal was in the van, even as he emphasized that he did not care if Coulter had a small amount of marijuana. Without admitting to possession, Coulter conceded that he smoked marijuana in the van the week before and that morning.
This admission, combined with Coulter’s suspicious behavior, gave Guzman probable cause to conduct a search. After Guzman smelled marijuana emitting from the van, Coulter told Guzman he “wanted to be real with him” before volunteering that he “did not need any more ‘strikes’ and indicated . . . that he had a gun in the van.” Specifically, after Guzman asked for a fourth time whether he had a gun, Coulter suggested that he would be “losing” by answering and that he did not “want to lose.”
Coulter also insisted that he “had people trying to kill him . . . . and did not want to be caught out there with nothing.” These comments prompted Guzman to inform Coulter that he was just going to detain him so that he did not run up and grab the gun. Coulter offered to walk farther away instead, though he never moved.
Guzman then instructed Coulter to turn and face his police car and handcuffed him for officer safety. As he did so, Guzman reiterated that Coulter was “just detained. That’s it.” He also asked Coulter whether he understood what detention meant, but Coulter did not directly respond. Guzman explained that the handcuffs were necessary because he did not want to “wind up fighting with Coulter.” Coulter said “no, no, no, no” before saying that Guzman was cool.
Guzman then emphasized for a third time that Coulter was just detained and asked again whether he understood what that meant. Coulter responded “yeah.” Guzman instructed Coulter not to pull away, because he did not want to tase him and do a bunch of paperwork. Coulter said that was “fine.” Coulter then reiterated that he “want[ed] to be real with [Officer Guzman].”
After securing Coulter in handcuffs, Guzman asked him where the suspected gun was. Coulter then explicitly admitted for the first time that he had a gun in his backpack. Coulter later suggested that Guzman could just take the gun and let him go. While Coulter remained handcuffed and standing in the street, a fellow officer arrived, searched the van, and located the gun along with .37 ounces (approximately 10 grams) of marijuana in his backpack. Guzman then arrested Coulter.
The trial judge granted Coulter’s motion to suppress, finding that Coulter’s statement after he was placed into handcuffs constituted custody and thus Coulter should have been Mirandized first. The 5th circuit reversed.
In Wright, we said that a suspect is in custody for Miranda purposes when placed under formal arrest or when a reasonable person in the suspect’s position would have understood the situation to constitute a restraint on freedom of movement of the degree which the law associates with formal arrest. Neither the officer’s nor the suspect’s subjective intent is relevant to the custody determination.
Because no single fact or circumstance results in Miranda custody, this court has repeatedly considered certain key details encapsulated by the following factors:
o First, the length of the questioning;
o Second, the location of the questioning;
o Third, the accusatory, or non-accusatory, nature of the questioning;
o Fourth, the amount of restraint on the individual’s physical movement; and
o Fifth, statements made by officers regarding the individual’s freedom to move or leave.
The freedom-of-movement test, however, identifies only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for Miranda custody. Courts must also assess whether the environment surrounding the questioning implicated the concerns identified in Miranda.
1. Freedom of Movement Test
A. Length of Questioning
Approximately 15 minutes elapsed between Guzman’s first contact with Coulter and Coulter’s admission that he had a pistol in his backpack. This court in U.S. v. Harrell, 894 F.2d 120, (5th Cir. 1990), warned against over-reliance upon the length of questioning because doing so injects a measure of hindsight into the analysis which it wishes to avoid. We said in Ortiz that while a detention of approximately an hour raises considerable suspicion, a 30 minute interview suggests that a suspect was not in custody. Based on these authorities, the comparatively brief questioning here is incompatible with finding that Coulter was in custody pursuant to Miranda.
B. Location of Questioning
In Chavira, we said that interrogations in public settings are less police dominated than station house interrogations; the public nature reduces the hazard that officers will resort to overbearing means to elicit incriminating responses and diminishes the individual’s fear of abuse for failure to cooperate.
Guzman questioned Coulter while he stood on a neighborhood street. In fact, the questioning took place in front of the home where Coulter apparently lived with his parents. Later, his mother came outside and officers released the van to her. We have also noted that a smaller number of officers mitigates a suspect’s sense of vulnerability. See U.S. v. Bengivenga, 845 F.2d 593 (5th Cir. 1988). No other officers were present during Guzman’s questioning of Coulter. This factor weighs against finding Coulter was in custody as contemplated by Miranda.
C. Nature of the questioning
The district court found that the non- accusatory nature of the questioning did not suggest that a reasonable person in Coulter’s position would have equated it with formal arrest. The district court determined that Guzman was merely appealing to Coulter’s interests in being truthful and helpful during the search, rather than engaging in formal questioning. We agree.
D. Restraint on movement
This court has not considered whether a suspect questioned while in handcuffs during a valid traffic stop is in Miranda custody. Here, Guzman had a substantial conversation with Coulter before placing him in handcuffs. And at that time, Guzman explained that the handcuffs were necessary because he did not want Coulter “to run up and grab the gun,” or “wind up fighting with Coulter.” Importantly, Coulter replied “you’re cool.”
Such a response does not convey that Coulter equated the handcuffs with formal arrest. While Coulter offered to distance himself farther from Guzman instead of being handcuffed, the dash camera video reveals that he never attempted to move. Coulter also never asked or attempted to end the encounter. He remained standing in the street without being forced on the ground or into Guzman’s vehicle.
Under the circumstances, objective concerns for officer safety necessitated the amount of restraint generated by the handcuffs. Coulter implicitly acknowledged the limited purpose of the restraint, and a reasonable person in his position would not have equated such restraint with formal arrest. The district court erred by ruling otherwise.
E. Statement made by officer regarding freedom to move or leave
Guzman placed Coulter in handcuffs and explained that it was “just detainment.” He then twice reassured Coulter that he was “just detained.” And, most important, Coulter confirmed that he understood what being “detained” meant. Coulter could have asked for clarification or simply said “no,” but he just said “yeah,” which clearly suggests Coulter understood that he was not in custody as contemplated by Miranda.
The district court heavily relied on Guzman’s statement, after he handcuffed Coulter, “not to pull away, because Guzman did not want to tase him.” Coulter asserts now that he understood the statement to warn that an attempt to leave could result in being tased. This isolated statement could create an inference that Coulter may have been in Miranda custody. But no one fact is determinative, and Coulter immediately replied,“that’s fine.”
This contemporaneous response, like Coulter’s conveying that Guzman was “cool” when he handcuffed Coulter, objectively indicates that Coulter did not equate the tasing statement with formal arrest as events unfolded. Indeed, no reasonable person would tell an officer that he was “cool” or “fine” with being essentially arrested. And it is hard to conceive that a reasonable person, while handcuffed, would tell an officer that he “wanted to be real with him” if he thought he was already under arrest. Unlike the district court, we conclude, based on the men’s interactions, that Guzman’s conversation with and statements to Coulter were not indicative of the restraint associated with formal arrest.
2. Environment surrounding questioning
In Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court held that officers generally need not issue Miranda warnings before questioning motorists and passengers during a routine traffic stop. Moreover, because the typical traffic stop is public, at least to some degree, the atmosphere surrounding an ordinary traffic stop is substantially less police dominated than that surrounding the kinds of interrogation at issue in Miranda itself.
The environment in which Guzman questioned Coulter did not present the same inherently coercive pressures as the station house questioning at issue in Miranda. Unlike station house interrogations, the encounter between Guzman and Coulter lasted only approximately 15 minutes. And unlike the atmosphere surrounding a station house interrogation, Coulter remained standing in the street in front of his parents’ home during the entire encounter.