Argued December 5, 2012
Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CMD-21308-11), Hon. Stuart G. Nash, Trial Judge.
Michael L. Spekter for appellant.
Christine Macey, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, John P. Mannarino, and Margaret Barr, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.
Before Washington, Chief Judge, and Thompson and Easterly, Associate Judges.
Easterly, Associate Judge
While driving his nine-year-old son to football practice, Marquette Sharif White was pulled over by the police because (according to the credited suppression-hearing testimony of one of the police officers) items were hanging from his rearview mirror, obstructing the view out the front windshield. But instead of being told the reason he had been stopped or being asked for his license and registration, as in an ordinary traffic stop, Mr. White was ordered out of his car, handcuffed, and moved to the rear of his vehicle, toward the cruiser driven by the police. While in handcuffs, separated from his son, and without having been given any explanation from the police about what was going on, Mr. White was asked by one officer whether he had "anything illegal" in his car. He responded that he had a joint in his pants. After giving the joint to the officer, he said he was just taking his son to football practice and he was sorry. He was subsequently charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. In the trial court and now on appeal, Mr. White asserts that he was questioned by the police while in custody without the protection of Miranda warnings.
Looking at the totality of the circumstances, we agree that, at the time he was questioned by the police, a reasonable person in Mr. White's position would have felt restrained to a "'degree associated with a formal arrest.'" Thus we hold that he was in Miranda custody and that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. We remand to permit Mr. White, who entered a conditional guilty plea after his suppression motion was denied, to decide whether to withdraw his plea.
I. Facts and Procedural History
At approximately 6:00 p.m. on October 28, 2011, Mr. White was driving his nine-year-old son to football practice; his son was seated in the back seat and was dressed in "football attire." When Mr. White reached the 1400 block of Montana Avenue, N.E., however, his trip was interrupted when he was pulled over by two officers in a police cruiser who used "lights and sirens" to execute the stop. The officers exited their car and approached Mr. White's vehicle from both sides.
The officers did not inform Mr. White why they had pulled him over, and they did not ask him for his license and registration. Instead, Officer John Wright, the officer who approached Mr. White from the driver's side, "[i]mmediately asked [Mr. White] to step out of the vehicle, place his hands behind his back, and he was placed in handcuffs." The officers "stepped" Mr. White, handcuffed, to the back of his car, in the direction of the police cruiser.
When Mr. White reached the rear of his vehicle, the officers gave him no additional information about why they had stopped him, why they had put him in handcuffs, or what they were going to do with him. Instead, Officer Wright immediately asked Mr. White whether there was anything illegal in his vehicle. Mr. White said no, but then added that he had "a J" in his pants, which Officer Wright understood to mean a joint. Officer Wright did a pat down of Mr. White and found nothing of concern. Officer Wright then removed Mr. White's handcuffs and asked him to retrieve the joint. Mr. White complied and gave Officer Wright the joint. The officers also searched the car but found no other contraband. Officer Wright testified that, throughout this encounter, Mr. White was "very cooperative." He told the officers that he was just taking his son to football practice and that he was very sorry.
After Mr. White was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana, he moved to suppress his statements to the police and the joint as the products of questioning in the absence of Miranda warnings. Officer Wright testified at the suppression hearing that he and his partner had been assigned to a vice unit on the evening of Mr. White's arrest. The focus of the unit was on prostitution, narcotics, and weapons. Officer Wright testified that he pulled Mr. White over because baby shoes were hanging from his rearview mirror, obstructing the view out the front windshield. Officer Wright explained that he had been instructed to conduct traffic stops whenever an object was hanging from the rearview mirror so as to obstruct the driver's view.
Officer Wright testified that he does not as a matter of course handcuff individuals he has stopped for traffic violations, but that he handcuffed Mr. White for two reasons: (1) because the area was "a very high narcotics area, specifically, PCP, which is a very dangerous drug" and (2) because, as he approached the car, he saw Mr. White appear to stuff something into his pants, which gave rise to a concern that Mr. White might be armed. Officer Wright acknowledged that he had placed handcuffs on Mr. ...