The Public Safety Exception To Miranda Rule
With the capture of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reports are circulating that the government will be invoking the “public safety” exception to the Miranda rule. I thought I’d offer a brief explanation of this exception.
As most of us already know the Miranda case requires that police advise a suspect of his right to counsel before questioning him and if he invokes that right they must stop questioning. There are however a few exceptions to the rule and one is the public safety exception.
The rule goes back to the case of New York v. Quarles
The case began in September 1980 when a woman was raped. She approached two police officers and told them that she had been attacked and that the person who raped her had just entered a supermarket carrying a gun. One of the officers called for assistance while the other (Officer Kraft) entered the market to look for the suspect.
He found the man (Quarles) and ordered him to stop. Quarles complied with the order and the two waited for backup to arrive. Once additional officers arrived Kraft frisked the suspect and found he was wearing an empty shoulder holster. Since he had been told the man had a gun and he now saw an empty holster, Kraft reasonably suspected that there was a gun nearby.
He asked Quarles where the gun was and Quarles responded by saying “over there”, nodding in the direction of some stacked cartons. Kraft retrieved a loaded gun from the stack and then read Quarles his Miranda rights. When the case went to trial both the gun and the statement were admitted in evidence against Quarles.
Quarles and his attorney objected on Miranda grounds and the trial court agreed, suppressing the evidence. The government appealed and the appeals courts affirmed the ruling of the trial court. The case then was appealed to the US Supreme Court.
There the court voted 6-3 in part and 5-4 in part to reverse the lower courts and admit the evidence.
The basic argument being that not to do so would put the police in an untenable position. They would have to choose between their own safety (or the safety of the public in general) and gathering evidence to convict a criminal (or as some have observed the Constitution is not a suicide pact)
The majority opinion made it clear that this rule was a narrow one, it could only be used where there was a reasonable belief of a threat to public safety (such as was posed by the gun). They also held that direct coercion (such as beating the suspect) would still result in suppression of the evidence.
There was one partial dissent and one full dissent
Justice O’Connor held that the gun could be admitted but that the statement could not, since that would be using the suspects words against him rather that the weapon which posed the danger. So on the issue of the gun the vote was 6-3 that it could be admitted but on the issue of the statement the ruling was 5-4 that it could be admitted.
Justices Marshall, Brennan and Stevens held that all the evidence should be suppressed because the police always have the choice to question without Miranda if they want to.
Certainly this is a difficult topic for us to consider. I am a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights and do not wish to give the authorities any more power than needed. But at the same time we cannot put ourselves in a position where we have to choose between two forms of public safety, immediate in terms of the risk and future in terms of letting criminals get away with it.