Not long after Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody, the federal government announced it would not give the suspect “Miranda Warnings” before interrogating him. Withholding Miranda Warnings from a criminal suspect is a clear mistake. The so-called “public safety exception” to Miranda is rare, and it doesn’t apply to the case of the suspected Boston Marathon bomber.
First a little history and perspective. In 1966, the United States Supreme Court held that a criminal suspect in police custody must be given certain rights or “warnings,” before police agents may interrogate the suspect. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). These rights include the right to remain silent, and that anything the suspect says may be used against him in court; the right to consult with an attorney prior to and during any questioning; and, if the suspect cannot afford an attorney, the right to a court-appointed lawyer free of charge. Since 1966, Miranda has been the law of the land in all 50 states, with some states (including Texas) codifying these rights and even expanding them slightly. Now, when a suspect is in custody but not “Mirandized” before police interrogation, the answers the suspect gives are generally not admissible in court.
In 1984, the United States Supreme Court carved out a “public safety” exception to Miranda in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649. The Court called it a “narrow exception to the Miranda rule” and predicted that police officers “can and will distinguish almost instinctively between questions necessary to secure their own safety or the safety of the public and questions designed solely to elicit testimonial evidence from a suspect.” Id. at 658-59. Quarles involved a suspect who allegedly raped a woman at gunpoint. When a police officer located Quarles and took him into custody, the officer discovered the suspect was wearing an empty gun holster. The officer asked where the gun was and the suspect nodded toward some empty cartons and responded, “the gun is over there.”
The Supreme Court in Quarles recognized that an immediate threat to officer safety can at times outweigh a suspect’s right for Miranda Warnings before questioning. However, in the case of the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, (who was taken into custody and immediately hospitalized in serious condition), there was no immediate threat to officer safety or public safety. Law enforcement authorities publicly announced there were only two suspects — one killed in a police shootout and the other wounded and taken into custody. The police had no information to suspect additional bombs posed an immediate threat to anyone. In fact, the town of Watertown, Massachusetts had been on lockdown until the suspect was captured. Then law enforcement authorities and public officials told citizens it was safe to return to the streets and their daily lives. If the primary argument for withholding Miranda Warnings to the suspected Boston Marathon bomber is that he “might” have information about additional bombs or bomb plots, then the public safety exception could be arguably stretched to include a possible danger in every, single type of case involving explosives, guns, threats or violence. It would be a classic case of an exception swallowing up the entire rule.
Miranda Warnings and constitutional rights are not minor inconveniences to be circumvented when a suspect is particularly hated or when police agents really-really want a suspect to talk. Constitutional rights are cornerstones of American democracy. They are what make our country superior to nations that don’t have constitutional protections for their own citizens. We either believe in our constitutional rights, or we don’t. I believe in our Constitution and I cannot imagine I am alone in that belief.