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Civil Liberties

Should There Be a Cost-Benefit Exception to Miranda's Exclusionary Rule?

Judge Jones makes an interesting and compelling argument that in situations where it is debatable whether an officer followed Miranda, there is no good reason for suppressing an unwarned voluntary statement.


On Monday, the Fifth Circuit decided an interesting Miranda case, allowing admission of a suspect's unwarned statements.  And Judge Jones provided an even more interesting concurring opinion, suggesting that voluntary statements should be admitted in situations where it was debatable whether the Miranda rules were applicable.  Judge Jones makes a compelling cost-benefit argument against suppressing statements in such circumstances, and I hope that her approach in followed in future cases.

Here are the facts, as recounted in the decision: A lone police officer performed a traffic stop on Braylon Coulter in the middle of the night. Having been given reason to suspect that Coulter, who revealed an aggravated robbery conviction, had a gun, the officer handcuffed him and asked where it was. Coulter answered, and the officer's partner arrived later to find a .40 caliber pistol and .37 ounces of marijuana in Coulter's backpack between the front seats of the van he drove. Before Coulter divulged that information, the officer did not provide Miranda warnings. The admissibility of Coulter's unwarned statements therefore depended on whether he was "in custody" as contemplated by Miranda at the time he offered them.

The Fifth Circuit held that a reasonable person in Coulter's position would not have thought that he was in custody for Miranda purposes. Moreover, the officer questioned Coulter in an environment that was not tantamount to a station house interrogation as contemplated by Miranda. As a result, the Fifth Circuit (in a 2-1 decision authored by Judge Jones) held that all of Coulter's unwarned statements were admissible.

Judge Jones went on, however, to file a concurring opinion to her own majority opinion.  She argued that, where the issue of Miranda compliance was debatable, it would be appropriate to weigh the costs and benefits of suppressing a voluntary statement:

The panel is deeply divided on the application of the "custody" test. Under such circumstances, it seems to me, we ought to recall that "[t]he Miranda rules are prophylactic rules that the Court found to be necessary to protect the Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination." Vega v. Tekoh, 597 U.S. __, __, 2022 WL 2251304, *8 (June 23, 2022). Moreover, "when [the Supreme] Court creates a prophylactic rule to protect a constitutional right, the relevant 'reasoning' is the weighing of the rule's benefits against its costs." Montejo v. Louisiana, 556 U.S. 778, 793  (2009). The Miranda rule is therefore "justified only by reference to its prophylactic purpose, . . . and applies only where its benefits outweigh its costs[.]" Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98, 106 (2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) …. When three judges cannot agree on whether a suspect in a traffic stop is "in custody," then we ought to consider the costs and benefits of suppressing incriminatory statements.

Judge Jones then went on to conclude that, in cases such as this one, the cost-benefit calculation tips decidedly against suppressing a voluntary statement. She explained that "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." She also noted that "the videotape of this entire encounter compellingly shows there was no improper compulsion or restraint."

What about adopting a flat rule that police must always give Miranda warnings when they handcuff someone? Judge Jones explained that "[o]fficers might be put to the choice of ensuring their own safety or conducting routine investigations. 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."

Judge Jones concluded that "suppressing Coulter's unwarned statements under these circumstances would also yield no meaningful societal or judicial benefits. '[U]nlike unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment or actual violations of the Due Process Clause or the Self-Incrimination Clause, there is, with respect to mere failures to warn, nothing to deter.' United States v. Patane, 542 U.S. 630, 642 (2004) (plurality opinion) (emphasis added). Here, under applicable law, there was nothing to deter and therefore no justification for suppressing Coulter's un-Mirandized statements."

I think Judge Jones' concurrence is very persuasive. As I have discussed at length in my various articles on Miranda (the most recent of which can be found here), that decision imposes significant costs of law enforcement.  In cases such as this one, where a suspect's statements are not, in fact, compelled and the only issue is one of Miranda compliance in a debatable situation, it is hard to see the justification for suppressing a suspect's statements. I hope that Judge Jones' concurring opinion attracts wide attention and is followed in future cases.