State v. Preece

Citation181 W.Va. 633,383 S.E.2d 815
Decision Date14 July 1989
Docket NumberNo. 18564,18564
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of West Virginia v. David PREECE.
Syllabus by the Court

1. Miranda warnings are required whenever a suspect has been formally arrested or subjected to custodial interrogation, regardless of the nature or severity of the offense.

2. When ruling upon a motion to suppress a statement made by a suspect pursuant to a traffic investigation due to the investigating officer's failure to provide Miranda warnings, the trial court must determine whether the statement was the result of custodial interrogation.

3. The sole issue before a trial court in determining whether a traffic investigation has escalated into an accusatory, custodial environment, requiring Miranda warnings, is whether a reasonable person in the suspect's position would have considered his or her freedom of action curtailed to a degree associated with a formal arrest.

4. "A trial court's decision regarding the voluntariness of a confession will not be disturbed unless it is plainly wrong or clearly against the weight of the evidence." Syl. pt. 3, State v. Vance, 162 W.Va. 467, 250 S.E.2d 146 (1978).

Mark William McOwen, Huntington, for Preece.

Brenda Craig Ellis, Asst. Atty. Gen., Charleston, for State.

McHUGH, Justice:

This case is before the Court upon the appeal of David Preece from the Wayne County Circuit Court's denial of his motion for a new trial following his conviction for the felony offense of driving under the influence of alcohol which is a contributing cause of a fatality, pursuant to W.Va.Code, 17C-5-2(a) [1986]. He was sentenced to serve one to three years in the penitentiary. 1 The issue before the Court in this case is whether a police officer who is investigating a traffic incident is required to provide Miranda 2 warnings to persons at the scene of the investigation prior to questioning them. We affirm.


Between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. on April 12, 1986, there was a two-car accident involving a white sedan (with a sunroof) and a blue hatchback on a two-lane road, Route 52, in Wayne County, West Virginia. The blue hatchback was moving slowly in the northbound lane. Immediately after an explosive accident with the southbound white sedan, the blue hatchback stopped perpendicular to the northbound lane in which it was travelling. The southbound white sedan continued moving, causing motorists behind the blue hatchback in the northbound lane to swerve in order to avoid additional accidents. 3 The originally southbound white sedan came to a stop in a ditch to the right of the northbound lane, and was pointed in a northerly direction. 4

Several motorists stopped and offered assistance. The driver of the blue hatchback was already dead (from massive internal bleeding). Some motorists approached the white hatchback and smelled alcohol. Two men were in the white sedan. One man was partially on the floor of the front passenger's seat. The other man, identified by the motorists as the appellant, was in the driver's seat with his feet stuck under the passenger's side dashboard. The appellant conversed with the motorists and informed them that he was "alright."

While one motorist called the fire department, others attempted to locate tools to assist the men in the white sedan who appeared to be unable to exit the car.

Within three to four minutes, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and firemen arrived.

The man on the passenger's side of the white sedan had left the scene of the accident.

When the sheriff and his deputy arrived, the deputy approached the white sedan. EMTs were assisting the appellant, whose only injury was the cut on his head. At that time, the appellant remained in the driver's seat with his feet under the passenger's side dashboard. The deputy also smelled alcohol in the sedan. While the EMTs and firemen were using the "jaws of life" to remove the appellant from the sedan, the deputy investigated the accident. He drew accident sketches, took photographs and took statements from the motorists who were travelling northbound behind the blue hatchback. The motorists told the deputy of the additional occupant of the white sedan who had left the scene of the accident. The EMTs, however, told the deputy that it would have been impossible to exit the sedan, given its wrecked condition in the ditch.

After twenty minutes had passed, the EMTs had removed the appellant, placed him on a stretcher and put him in an ambulance. The deputy and the sheriff approached the ambulance to talk with the appellant. 5

Without first providing the appellant with a Miranda warning, the deputy asked the appellant if he was driving the vehicle. The appellant responded that he was driving. The deputy then asked him what happened. The appellant responded that the blue hatchback "came acrossed [sic] the road and hit me." The deputy asked the appellant where he had been. The appellant responded, "you want the truth?" When the deputy answered affirmatively, the appellant admitted that he had been at a bar and "had been drinking."

Approximately three hours after the accident, a blood alcohol test was performed. 6 At that time, appellant's blood alcohol level was .24.

Sometime shortly thereafter the appellant told the deputy that he was not driving the car, but that his friend, Mike Stepp, with whom he had been drinking that evening, was driving the car.

The appellant was not formally arrested or taken into custody. 7 Within one month of the accident, the appellant was indicted by the grand jury after additional investigation.

Prior to trial the appellant moved to suppress the statements he made in the ambulance because the deputy did not provide the appellant with Miranda warnings before questioning him. The deputy was the only witness at the suppression hearing. He testified that when he arrived at the scene of the accident, he routinely investigated it. He was not sure how the accident occurred and had received conflicting reports as to whether there could have been another person in the white sedan: "I didn't know who was telling me what.... I was trying to determine who was driving the car." 8

The trial court ruled that the initial question (whether the appellant was the driver of the white sedan) was admissible because it was a routine question asked by the deputy when he arrived at the scene of the automobile accident; therefore, the deputy was not required to provide the appellant with Miranda warnings prior to asking the question. 9 However, the trial court suppressed all subsequent statements because it found that once the appellant replied that he was the driver of the car, the deputy had probable cause to arrest him and was therefore required to advise him of his Miranda rights prior to any additional questioning. 10

The appellant testified before the jury that he had consumed approximately a case of beer between midafternoon and the late evening hours prior to the accident; that, however, he had relinquished his keys to Mike Stepp much earlier in the evening and that Stepp was driving when the accident occurred. The appellant testified that immediately following the accident, Stepp pulled him from the passenger's side to the driver's side of the car and exited. He then testified that he did not recall the accident or anything that occurred immediately following it. 11

Stepp testified and denied being in the car when the accident occurred.

Mutual friends of Stepp and the appellant established that the two were with them in a bar and both were missing during the time the accident occurred. Stepp reappeared, unmarked, and asked for a ride. He then informed the group not to use Route 52 because there was an accident on the road. He also stated that he would never drink and drive again. 12

The jury returned a guilty verdict for the felony offense.


The appellant contends that the trial court erred when it concluded that the deputy was not required to provide him Miranda warnings before asking the appellant if he was driving the white sedan.

The Miranda ruling resulted from the growing concern of the Supreme Court of the United States over the voluntariness of statements provided by a suspect who is (1) in custody and (2) interrogated. 13 In order to temper the accusatory and coercive atmosphere of such interrogations and to provide some minimal assurance to the courts that the statement which is subsequently offered in a criminal proceeding against the suspect was voluntarily given, the court required the police 14 to inform a custodially detained suspect, of his constitutional rights under the fifth and sixth amendments to the Constitution of the United States before attempting to interrogate him.

The warnings that must be provided occur when "a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 1612, 16 L.Ed.2d 694, 706 (1966). 15 The ruling was intended to apply only when the suspect was interrogated in a custodial atmosphere, as it is in this situation that the suspect will be induced "to speak where he would not otherwise do so freely." Miranda, 384 U.S. at 467, 86 S.Ct. at 1624, 16 L.Ed.2d at 719.

The Miranda safeguards were never intended to apply to the typical, "on-the-scene" investigation which ordinarily does not create the type of coercive atmosphere that Miranda sought to eradicate: "Our decision is not intended to hamper the traditional function of police officers in investigating crime.... General on-the-scene questioning as to facts surrounding a crime or other general questioning of citizens in the fact-finding process is not affected by our holding." Miranda, 384 U.S. at 477, 86 S.Ct. at 1629, 16 L.Ed.2d at 725.

Two of the four suspects involved in the Miranda decision were forcibly taken to the station house and subjected to protracted questioning. Since that decision, ...

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