State v. Easler

Decision Date02 April 1996
Docket NumberNo. 2512,2512
Citation322 S.C. 333,471 S.E.2d 745
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Kenneth Wayne EASLER, Appellant. . Heard

Senior Assistant Appellate Defender Wanda H. Haile, of South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Charles Molony Condon, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Attorney General Charles H. Richardson, and Assistant Attorney General Charles F. Reid, Columbia; and Solicitor Holman C. Gossett, Jr., Spartanburg, for Respondent.


Appellant was convicted of reckless homicide, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN), felony driving while under the influence (DUI) causing great bodily injury, felony driving while under the influence (DUI) causing death, leaving the scene of an accident, and driving under suspension (second offense).

He was sentenced as follows: (1) Felony DUI causing death--twenty-five years; (2) Felony DUI causing great bodily injury--fifteen years, consecutive; (3) Reckless homicide--five years, concurrent; (4) ABHAN--ten years, concurrent; (5) Leaving the scene of an accident--one year, concurrent; and (6) Driving under suspension, second offense--six months, concurrent.

Appellant appeals various rulings of the trial judge. We affirm.


Appellant posits five issues on appeal:

1. The trial court erred in denying Appellant's motion to suppress statements made to police officers prior to his arrest because the statements were given without benefit of the required warnings under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966).

2. The trial court erred in quashing the first jury panel selected in the case after finding that the defense exercised its peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner.

3. The trial court erred in denying Appellant's motion for a change of venue in the case.

4. The trial court erred in denying Appellant's motion to dismiss the convictions in the case and grant a new trial because the convictions violated the double jeopardy clause.

5. The trial court erred in denying Appellant the opportunity to plead guilty to several of the State's indictments.


On the afternoon of April 15, 1994, Constance Roberts was driving with her children. A truck, coming in the opposite direction, swerved into her lane and struck her vehicle. Ms. Roberts suffered severe injuries, and her son, Cornelius, was killed. Appellant was later arrested as the driver of the truck.

Before trial, Appellant made a motion to suppress statements made by him shortly after the accident that he claimed were taken in violation of Miranda. During an in camera hearing, Officer John McCall testified about the incriminating statements that Appellant made. McCall stated that he was on patrol near the accident scene on the day of the accident. By police radio, he received information that one of the parties involved in the accident (Appellant) had left the scene on foot. Thereafter, he went in search of the party before going to the accident scene itself. The radio dispatcher informed him that the party was wearing blue jeans and no shirt, and had been last seen using a pay phone at a nearby "C-Mart" store. Upon arrival at the "C-Mart," McCall spotted a man, matching the dispatcher's description, using the pay phone.

As McCall approached the party, he asked him if he had been involved in an accident. The party responded that he had. Upon asking for identification, McCall learned it was Appellant. When asked why he left the scene of the accident, Appellant responded that he had no driver's license and was scared. At that point, McCall asked Appellant, "if you would, let's just go back to the scene of the accident." Before getting in the police car, Appellant asked McCall to retrieve a package that he had left on the pay phone. Upon retrieving the package, McCall discovered that it contained a six-pack of beer. Since Appellant had a strong odor of alcohol and appeared to have been drinking, McCall asked him when he had his last drink. Appellant responded that he had a Milwaukee's Best just prior to the accident.

Upon arrival at the accident scene, two bystanders immediately identified Appellant as the driver of the truck. McCall then arrested Appellant for DUI and read him his Miranda rights. On cross-examination, McCall conceded that once Appellant admitted he was in an accident, he was not free to leave and would have been placed under arrest if he refused to return to the accident scene. Defense counsel argued that the incriminating statements made by Appellant at the "C-Mart" should be inadmissible since Appellant was in custody at the time they were taken, thus requiring Miranda warnings. The trial judge disagreed and ruled that there was no custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings. On appeal, Appellant asserts the trial judge erred in failing to suppress these statements.


A statement, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, obtained as a result of custodial interrogation is inadmissible unless the person was advised of and voluntarily waived his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966).

The purpose of Miranda is to prevent "government officials from using the coercive nature of confinement to extract confessions that would not be given in an unrestrained environment." Arizona v. Mauro, 481 U.S. 520, 529-530, 107 S.Ct. 1931, 1937, 95 L.Ed.2d 458 (1987).

Miranda Warnings

A suspect in custody may not be subjected to interrogation unless he is informed that: he has the right to remain silent; anything he says can be used against him in a court of law; he has a right to the presence of an attorney; and, if he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning, if he so desires. Miranda v. Arizona, supra.

It is sufficient if the warnings reasonably convey to a suspect his rights as required by Miranda. Duckworth v. Eagan, 492 U.S. 195, 109 S.Ct. 2875, 106 L.Ed.2d 166 (1989). A "talismanic incantation" is not required. State v. Singleton, 284 S.C. 388, 326 S.E.2d 153, cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1111, 105 S.Ct. 2346, 85 L.Ed.2d 863 (1985), overruled in regard to the doctrine of in favorem vitae, State v. Torrence, 305 S.C. 45, 406 S.E.2d 315 (1991) (omission of phrase "in court" did not render warning inadequate).


The seminal case in this country in regard to the applicability of Miranda to roadside questioning of motorists detained pursuant to a traffic stop is Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (1984). Berkemer explicates the law: "The similarly noncoercive aspect of ordinary traffic stops prompts us to hold that persons temporarily detained pursuant to such stops are not 'in custody' for the purposes of Miranda." Berkemer, 468 U.S. at 440, 104 S.Ct. at 3150. To trigger the requirement of Miranda warnings, the suspect's "freedom of action [must be] curtailed to a 'degree associated with formal arrest.' " Whether the suspect is in custody depends on whether a reasonable person in the suspect's position would believe he was in custody. Id. at 440, 104 S.Ct. at 3150.

In Pennsylvania v. Bruder, 488 U.S. 9, 109 S.Ct. 205, 102 L.Ed.2d 172 (1988), the appellate entity further elucidates Miranda in a routine traffic stop scenario:

In Berkemer v. McCarty, supra, which involved facts strikingly similar to those in this case, the Court ... reasoned that although the stop was unquestionably a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, such traffic stops typically are brief, unlike a prolonged station house interrogation. Second, the Court emphasized that traffic stops commonly occur in the "public view," in an atmosphere far "less 'police dominated' than that surrounding the kinds of interrogation at issue in Miranda itself." Id., at 438-39, 104 S.Ct. 3138 [3149-50], 82 L.Ed.2d 317. The detained motorist's "freedom of action [was not] curtailed to 'a degree associated with formal arrest.' " Id., at 440, 104 S.Ct. 3138 [3150], 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (citing California v. Beheler, 463 U.S. 1121, 1125, 103 S.Ct. 3517 [3520], 77 L.Ed.2d 1275 (1983)). Accordingly, he was not entitled to a recitation of his constitutional rights prior to arrest, and his roadside responses to questioning were admissible.1 (footnote in original).

The facts in this record, which Bruder does not contest, reveal the same noncoercive aspects as the Berkemer detention : "a single police officer ask[ing] respondent a modest number of questions and request[ing] him to perform a simple balancing test at a location visible to passing motorists." 468 U.S., at 442, 104 S.Ct. 3138 [3151], 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (footnote omitted in original). Accordingly, Berkemer's rule, that ordinary traffic stops do not involve custody for purposes of Miranda, governs this case. (footnotes omitted).

Bruder, 488 U.S. at 10-11, 109 S.Ct. at 206-207.

The fact that the investigation has focused on the suspect does not trigger Miranda warnings unless he is in custody. Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420, 104 S.Ct. 1136, 79 L.Ed.2d 409 (1984).

Our Supreme Court in State v. Morgan, 282 S.C. 409, 319 S.E.2d 335 (1984), addressed the issue of routine questioning following a traffic accident:

The Miranda warnings are not required if the defendant is not in custody or significantly deprived of his freedom. State v. Neeley, 271 S.C. 33, 40, 244 S.E.2d 522, 526 (1978). When a defendant is not in custody or significantly deprived of his freedom, any inculpatory statements made at the time are not inadmissible because of the failure to give Miranda warnings. Defendant's view that he was deprived of his Morgan, 282 S.C. at 411-412, 319 S.E.2d at 336.

freedom is not sustained by the record. A traffic accident had just occurred. Dotson...

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