State v. Easler

Decision Date03 June 1997
Docket NumberNo. 24655,24655
Citation489 S.E.2d 617,327 S.C. 121
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Kenneth Wayne EASLER, Petitioner. . Heard

Attorney General, Charles Molony Condon, Deputy Attorney General, John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Salley W. Elliot, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Charles H. Richardson, Columbia, and Solicitor Holman C. Gossett, Jr., Spartanburg, for respondent.

Senior Assistant Appellate Defender Wanda H. Haile, Columbia, for petitioner.

WALLER, Justice:

We granted certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' decision in State v. Easler, 322 S.C. 333, 471 S.E.2d 745 (Ct.App.1996). We affirm as modified.


On April 15, 1994, Petitioner, Kenneth Wayne Easler, while driving a pickup truck in Cherokee County, crossed the center line of a street and struck an oncoming vehicle head-on. The driver of the vehicle, Constance Roberts, was seriously injured and her 7-year old son, Cornelius, was killed. A breathalyzer test administered shortly after the collision revealed Easler's blood alcohol content to be .20.

Easler was subsequently convicted of the following offenses and sentenced as indicated: felony driving under the influence (DUI) causing death (25 years); felony DUI causing great bodily injury (15 years consecutive); assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN) (10 years concurrent); reckless homicide (5 years concurrent); leaving the scene of an accident (one year concurrent); and second offense driving under suspension (6 months concurrent). The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. Were statements Easler made to police taken in violation of Miranda v. Arizona? 1

2. Do Easler's convictions for reckless homicide/felony DUI causing death, and ABHAN/felony DUI causing great bodily injury violate the prohibition against double jeopardy? 2


At trial, Easler moved to suppress certain statements he made to police shortly after the accident on the grounds they were the subject of custodial interrogation and he had not been afforded his Miranda warnings. The Court of Appeals found Easler was not in custody at the time he made the incriminating statements, and that the statements were not the result of "interrogation," such that no Miranda warnings were required. In any event, it found that, even if Miranda warnings were required, any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We affirm in result.

The facts giving rise to Easler's statements to police are as follows: at approximately 2:15 pm, police officer John McCall received a communication from dispatch to go to an automobile accident on Lockhart Lane. Dispatch advised that one of the parties possibly involved in the accident had left the scene and was walking towards Highway 150 on Providence Creek Road. The individual was described as a white male wearing blue jeans and no shirt. En route to the accident, as Officer McCall and his partner pulled onto Hwy 150, they saw a young man (Easler) matching the description at the pay phone of a convenience store. 3 The officers asked Easler if he had been involved in an automobile accident, to which he replied he had and pointed in the direction of the accident. He was then asked for his identification and why he had left the scene of the accident, to which he responded he had no driver's license and was scared. The officer advised Easler, "If you would, let's just go back to the scene of the accident," and opened the door for Easler to get into the back of the police car. At this point, Easler asked McCall to retrieve a package for him which he'd left at the pay phone. The package contained a six-pack of beer and a pack of cigarettes. McCall asked Easler when he had had his last drink; Easler responded he'd had a Milwaukee's Best just prior to the accident, and indicated that his pants were wet where beer had spilled on his pants in the crash.

When they arrived at the accident scene, two eyewitnesses to the accident advised the officers that Easler had been the person involved in the accident who had left the scene. At that point, Officer McCall placed Easler under arrest and advised him of his Miranda rights. He was then transported to the jail for a breathalyzer test.

The Court of Appeals, citing Berkemer v. McCarty, 4 ruled the questions asked by police officers were the result of a routine investigation of a traffic accident such that they were not "custodial interrogation," and that Easler was not "in custody" at the time the statements were made. 5

As an initial matter, we find the Court of Appeals placed undue emphasis on Berkemer v. McCarthy. Berkemer holds that routine traffic stops do not constitute "custodial interrogation" for purposes of Miranda. See also Pennsylvania v. Bruder, 488 U.S. 9, 109 S.Ct. 205, 102 L.Ed.2d 172 (1988). The present case, however, does not involve a routine traffic stop. On the contrary, the officers, having been advised there had been an accident and that someone had left the scene, went looking for that individual based upon a description given by two eyewitnesses. Accordingly, to the extent the Court of Appeals relied on "routine traffic stop" cases, its opinion is modified.

Further, we disagree with the Court of Appeals' conclusion that Easler was not subjected to "interrogation." Interrogation is either express questioning or its functional equivalent. It includes words or actions on the part of police that police should know are reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 64 L.Ed.2d 297 (1980). See also State v. Franklin 299 S.C. 133, 382 S.E.2d 911 (1989). Here, once police determined Easler had in fact been involved in the accident, they continued to question him as to why he had left the accident and when he had last had a beer. Certainly, police knew these questions were likely to elicit incriminating responses. This was clearly interrogation. The only remaining inquiry is whether Easler was "in custody" at the time.

Miranda warnings are required for official interrogations only when a suspect "has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444, 86 S.Ct. at 1612. This language has been interpreted as meaning formal arrest or detention associated with a formal arrest. Berkemer, supra, 468 U.S. at 438-439, 104 S.Ct. at 3149-3150. In determining whether a suspect is "in custody," the totality of the circumstances, including the individual's freedom to leave the scene and the purpose, place and length of the questioning must be considered. United States v. Helmel, 769 F.2d 1306 (8th Cir.1985). The fact the investigation has focused on the suspect does not trigger the need for Miranda warnings unless he is in custody. Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420, 104 S.Ct. 1136, 79 L.Ed.2d 409 (1984). 6 Miranda warnings were "not intended to hamper the traditional function of police officers investigating a crime." Berkemer v. McCarty, supra 468 U.S. at 436, 104 S.Ct. at 3148. The relevant inquiry is whether a reasonable man in the suspect's position would have understood himself to be in custody. Bradley v. State, 316 S.C. 255, 449 S.E.2d 492 (1994). The initial determination of whether an individual was in custody depends on the objective circumstances of the interrogation, not the subjective views harbored by either the interrogating officers or the person being questioned. State v. Sprouse, 325 S.C. 275, 478 S.E.2d 871 (Ct.App.1996) (citing Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 114 S.Ct. 1526, 128 L.Ed.2d 293 (1994)).

We agree with the Court of Appeals' conclusion that, viewing the "totality of the circumstances" in this case, Easler was not in custody at the time of the interrogation. At the time officers approached Easler at the convenience store, they had not yet been to the scene of the accident, nor were they aware of the severity or extent of injuries involved in the accident. The only information they had received on the police scanner was that there had been an accident on Lockhart Lane and that one of the individuals had left the scene. Upon finding Easler, officers confirmed that he was, in fact, the individual involved in the accident. At this point, however, the officers had no basis to suspect Easler of DUI or to know the extent of the injuries in the accident. 7 Accordingly, they requested him to return to the scene of the accident where, upon seeing the injuries and realizing Easler's intoxicated state, they arrested him and issued Miranda warnings. Given the totality of these circumstances, we find Easler was not "in custody" for purposes of Miranda.

In any event, regardless of whether Easler was in custody at the time of the interrogation, any error in the failure to suppress his statements was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Newell, 303 S.C. 471, 401 S.E.2d 420 (Ct.App.1991) (failure to suppress evidence for Miranda violation harmless where record contains overwhelming evidence of guilt).

Two eyewitnesses to the accident positively identified Easler as the driver of the truck and testified they witnessed him leave the scene. Officer McCall testified Easler appeared intoxicated, had glassy, red eyes, slurred speech, had a flushed face, had strong odor of alcohol and was unsteady on his feet. He also testified that a license check of Easler's record revealed his license had been suspended. A breathalyzer test revealed a blood alcohol content of .20. Moreover, at trial, Easler admitted he'd been drinking beer, and that he had been the driver of the truck when the accident occurred. The overwhelming evidence of Easler's guilt renders any Miranda violation harmless.


Easler next asserts his convictions for reckless homicide and felony DUI causing death, and ABHAN and felony DUI causing great bodily injury violate the prohibition against double...

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