United States v. Coulter (5th Cir. July 2022)

The Federal Docket

August 9, 2022

Nino de Guzman, a Lancaster, Texas police officer, initiated a traffic stop of Braylon Ray Coulter’s vehicle shortly after 2:30am. During the encounter, Coulter revealed that he was on parole and tacitly admitted there was a gun in the vehicle. Guzman stated he would be detaining Coulter to ensure he could not go after the gun. When Coulter offered to walk away from the vehicle instead, Guzman ordered Coulter to turn around and face his patrol car, placing him in handcuffs.

Guzman repeatedly told Coulter that he was simply being detained, confirming that Coulter understood what that meant. At the same time, however, Guzman told Coulter that he had called backup and that, should Coulter try to move, Guzman would tase him. At some point during this exchange, Coulter told Guzman, “You’re cool.”

Thereafter, Guzman questioned Coulter, still in handcuffs, about the gun’s whereabouts. Coulter admitted the gun was in his backpack, prompting a lengthy conversation between the men about the propriety of carrying a firearm while on parole. The district court suppressed these statements from use against Coulter at trial, and the government appealed.

On interlocutory review, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court erred, finding that no reasonable person in Coulter’s position would have believed they were in custody necessitating a Miranda advisement. The Court found persuasive that Coulter had admitted to understanding the reason for his detention (officer safety) and what that meant (apparently, that he was not under arrest). The Fifth Circuit also noted that, although Coulter offered to move away from the vehicle, he did not actually attempt it, nor did he “ask[] or attempt[] to end the encounter.”

In a dissenting opinion, Richman noted that, “[a]t a minimum,” the majority did not give proper weight to the factual findings of the district court, who had the benefit of live, oral testimony. Nor was Richman persuaded by the majority’s review of other circuit’s case law indicating that handcuffs, alone, were insufficient to establish custody. The presence of a fact being insufficient is not the same thing as being wholly irrelevant to the inquiry.

In a concurring opinion, Jones notes that SCOTUS’s recent opinion in Vega v. Tekoh requires courts to conduct a cost-benefit analysis when considering whether a Miranda violation has occurred. And, here, if a three-judge panel considering the question triggers three separately authored opinions, the lack of guidance to law enforcement officers is costly.

The dissent notes, however, that Vega v. Tekoh had employed a cost-benefit analysis when considering a categorical extension of Miranda to § 1983 claims, rather than implying that a totality of circumstances inquiry should be supplanted by a cost-benefit analysis.

Appeal from the Northern District of Texas
Opinion by Jones
Concurrence by Jones
Dissent by Richman

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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