An explanation of the "public safety" exception to Miranda v. Arizona

by Philip Yabut in

On April 19, 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was captured after a five-day manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombings.  Almost immediately, a dispute over how to treat the only surviving supect of the bombings played out over mass and social media outlets.  Should he be considered an "enemy combatant?"  Should he be tried in a civil court or a military tribunal?  Should he be read his Miranda rights?  First, without looking at what should and should not be done, these are the facts as we know them:

1) Tsarnaev is an American citizen.

2) Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, who was killed during the manhunt, are suspected of murdering four people and injuring over 100 more over the course of five days in and around Boston.

3) The brothers are Muslims of Chechen descent who have been in the United States for more than ten years.

4) There is no indication as of yet that they have any connections to any international terrorist organization, and no group has claimed responsibility for their actions.

Upon capture, it became big news when major news outlets erroneously reported that the FBI read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.  Soon thereafter, the FBI announced that he had not been read his rights, and that in fact they would not do so until after an elite interrogation team questioned him under the "public safety" exception to Miranda as stated by the Supreme Court in the 1984 decision New York v. Quarles (467 U.S. 649).

So what is the "public safety" exception to Miranda?  The Court wrote in Quarles:

"We conclude 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. We decline to place officers such as Officer Kraft in the untenable position of having to consider, often in a matter of seconds, whether it best serves society for them to ask the necessary questions without the Miranda warnings and render whatever probative evidence they uncover inadmissible, or for them to give the warnings in order to preserve the admissibility of evidence they might uncover but possibly damage or destroy their ability to obtain that evidence and neutralize the volatile situation confronting them." (467 U. S. 658-59.)

The exception allows the police to question the suspect only on what may be considered an immediate threat to public safety or destruction of evidence.  In Quarles, the arresting officer only questioned the suspect as to the location of the gun used in the crime, and the Court allowed Quarles' statement to be admitted at his trial.  467 U.S. 659-60. 

In Tsarnaev's case, it would appear that the FBI would only be able to question him on where other bombs could be hidden, or whether he has any associates planning other attacks in the future.  However, when it comes to terrorism, the line as to what is an "imminent threat" of terrorism has been blurred by both the Bush and Obama administrations in the name of national security, so it could be up to the courts to determine if Miranda should be limited further.

It is also important to note that the Fifth Amendment does not discriminate by citizenship.  Even if Tsarnaev were not a U.S. citizen, he would enjoy the right against self-incrimination under the law, and thus would legally be entitled to receive Miranda warnings and request an attorney to be present when he is questioned further.

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