Criminal Justice

5th Circuit judge argues for a cost-benefit exception to the exclusionary rule

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A federal appeals judge has written a concurrence to her majority opinion to suggest that courts use a cost-benefit analysis in some cases when defendants seek to suppress statements made to police without a Miranda warning.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans ruled 2-1 on July 18 in the case of Braylon Ray Coulter, who was seeking to suppress the statements that he made to a Lancaster, Texas, police officer about a gun in his backpack in the van that he had been driving. Coulter was handcuffed when he made the statements after the officer pulled him over.

The appeals court majority, in an opinion by Judge Edith H. Jones, ruled that Coulter’s statements were admissible, even though he had not received a Miranda warning before he told the officer where the gun could be found.

The officer’s partner arrived and found a .40-caliber pistol and 0.37 ounces of marijuana in Coulter’s backpack.

Coulter had a previous conviction for aggravated robbery, and he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

In the majority opinion, Jones wrote that the statements were admissible for two reasons. First, a reasonable person in Coulter’s position would not have thought that he was in custody for Miranda purposes. Second, the police officer’s questioning was not tantamount to a station-house interrogation as contemplated by the Miranda decision.

In the concurrence, Jones argued that when appeals judges can’t agree on whether a traffic-stop suspect is in custody for Miranda warning purposes, the panel “ought to consider the costs and benefits of suppressing incriminatory statements.”

“The costs of suppressing Coulter’s unwarned statements would be substantial, namely, hindering the prosecution of a convicted felon who voluntarily admitted to possessing a firearm and drugs,” Jones wrote.

Requiring Miranda warnings before officers ask basic questions might force the officers to choose between ensuring their safety and conducting routine investigations, Jones said.

“One potential price of premature Mirandizing would be to require broader vehicle searches and, thus, broader invasions of privacy because officers would likely lack voluntary admissions from suspects. Prematurely requiring Miranda warnings during traffic stops would also inhibit questioning that could assist in time-sensitive investigations, e.g., for kidnapping victims or terrorists. Suppressing Coulter’s unwarned statements, under circumstances like those before us, would therefore needlessly burden law enforcement officers and imprudently hinder the investigation of crime.”

Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, noted the concurrence, calling it “an interesting and compelling argument” in a post for the Volokh Conspiracy. Cassell said he hopes Jones’ approach will be followed in future cases.

Chief Judge Priscilla Richman dissented. She argued that “the totality of the restraints imposed on Coulter amounted to custody,” and his statements after handcuffing should be suppressed.

“A reasonable person in Coulter’s shoes would have thought that he was not free to terminate the encounter and leave,” Richman wrote.

She also disagreed with Jones’ cost-benefit suggestion.

“A cost-benefit analysis is appropriate in deciding categorically whether Miranda should be extended or whether exceptions should be recognized,” Richman wrote. “It is not appropriate on a case-by-case basis once courts have ‘charted’ Miranda rules to a particular fact pattern.”

Bloomberg Law also covered the opinion.

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