The Party Line
2:42 pm
Tue April 23, 2013

Miranda And The Public Safety Exception

Michael Bitzer

With the situation in Boston having come to a close, the next phase of the case against the suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, will proceed into the judicial system.  But before the courtroom proceedings have commenced, a debate began over the actions of law enforcement and the legal route for the suspect.

News had barely broken of the capture of Boston bombing suspect  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s when U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham used Twitter to question the next step in prosecuting Tsarnaev.  The South Carolina Republican’s tweets included “Now that the suspect is in custody, the last thing I want is for him to remain silent” and “It is vital he be questioned for intelligence gathering purposes about possible future plots.”

In addition, the former military prosecutor contended that Tsarnaev, as a “potential enemy combatant,” could be held without “Miranda warnings or appointment of counsel.”

While Sen. Graham raises the issue of whether Tsarnaev can be tried as an “enemy combatant” versus a defendant in the criminal justice system, another debate has centered on the question of whether the suspect should have been given his Miranda warnings when taken into custody.

In the nearly 47 years that have elapsed since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its momentus Miranda v. Arizona decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed little latitude to its central holding that ensures a suspect’s 5th Amendment’s rights, especially against self-incrimination.

The most notable latitude is known as the “public safety exception” to the Miranda warnings, which came about due to a 1980s case in New York City.  Following a tip from a woman who claimed a man had raped her, police went into an A&P grocery store where the suspect was seen to have entered.

Upon detaining the suspect, the police officer discovered an empty shoulder holster and asked where the suspect’s gun was.  The man pointed towards some empty milk cartons and said, “the gun is over there.”  After finding the loaded gun, the officer then formally arrested the suspect and read him his Miranda rights.  The suspect than voluntarily waived his rights and said the gun was his. 

At trial, the gun and statements were thrown out because the judge held that the suspect should have been read his Miranda rights before the officer asked about the missing gun.

After the New York appellate courts upheld the court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision and held that the officer’s question was valid, even though the suspect was not read his Miranda rights.

In the court’s 1984 opinion in New York v. Quarles, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist held that police officers, acting “out of a host of different, instinctive, and largely unverifiable motives — their own safety, the safety of others, and perhaps as well as the desire to obtain incriminating evidence from the suspect,” can question suspects without first issuing the Miranda warning.

The Court held that “the need for answers to questions in a situation posing a threat to the public safety outweighs the need for the prophylactic rule protecting the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination” and that by recognizing a public safety exception, “will simply free [law enforcement agents] to follow their legitimate instincts when confronting situation presenting a danger to the public safety.” 

According to an analysis by the FBI, the public safety exception has evolved into a three-part test for allowing statements into a criminal trial without the Miranda warning: When police officers have an “objectively reasonable need to protect the police or the public from immediate danger,” when the questioning is limited to questions “necessary to secure their own safety or the safety of the public,” and that the suspect’s responses were voluntarily given, without coercion. 

As the legal process continues against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston bombings, some of the early actions will constitute a test of what the FBI has characterized as a “powerful tool” in the pursuit of public safety, while balancing the rights of suspects.