Thursday, October 31, 2013

Traffic Stop Affirmed; Officer Question After Offer of Cooperation Not "Interrogation" for Miranda Purposes

US v. Johnson: Johnson was driving through a part of Baltimore in which officers "often stops motorists  . . . for minor offenses in the hope that these encounters will lead them to information about more serious crimes."  Johnson was pulled over due to a "bent and illegible temporary registration tag."  Further investigation uncovered marijuana, which led to Johnson being arrested.  While being transported to the police station Johnson said "I can help you out, I don't want to go back to jail, I've got information for you," to which one of the officers responded, "what do you mean?"  Johnson explained that he could "get you a gun," meaning lead them to a gun in his own home which, as a convicted felon, he could not possess.  That led to a consensual search of Johnson's home, the recovery of a firearm, and Johnson's conviction for being a felon in possession thereof.

On appeal, Johnson challenged the district court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence recovered from the traffic stop, as well as his statements to the officers in response to the "what do you mean?" question.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed Johnson's conviction and sentence.  With regard to the stop, the court rejected Johnson's argument that the district court clearly erred by crediting the officers' testimony - that the tag was bent and unreadable - over his own - that it was fine.  It further held that even if the intent of the officers was investigation beyond the traffic violation itself, that didn't undermine the stop as it was based on probable cause of a violation.  With regard to the statements made in response to "what do you mean?", the court held that because Johnson was offering information to try and help himself the question was not "interrogation" as would have required Miranda warnings to be given.  Presumably, when someone in custody offers to "help" the cops, it means something other than "help convict me of a serious federal felony."

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