Boston, Terrorism, and Miranda: The Public Safety Exception

There’s significant controversy that the FBI didn’t read the Miranda rights to surviving Boston Marathon suspected bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, when he was captured on April 19. Tsarnaev was eventually read his rights on April 22, and was formally charged with federal terrorist crimes the same day. He now has an attorney, and remains in serious condition at the hospital.

The big question is: Will Tsarnaev’s statements made before Miranda be admissible against him?

Picture of gavel at courthouse in Columbus, OhioIn a nutshell, the Miranda warning informs suspects in custody that they have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Miranda isn’t expressly required by the Constitution, but was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona (1966). Miranda held that after a suspect has been taken into custody, the prosecution can’t use his/her statements resulting from law enforcement interrogation – unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards to protect against involuntary self-incrimination. Suspect statements made either in violation of or without Miranda are presumed to be coerced and not admissible at trial.

There is only one exception to Miranda – the public safety exception. The public safety exception was established in New York v. Quarles (1985), when a woman who reported she had been raped approached police and informed them that the suspected rapist entered a crowded supermarket with a loaded gun. Police detained the suspect, who made incriminating statements regarding the gun’s whereabouts, which led to police finding the gun in the supermarket. Even though the police didn’t read the suspect his Miranda rights first, the U.S. Supreme Court held his statements were admissible because the loaded gun was an immediate threat to public safety.

The Justice Department invoked the public safety exception in Tsarnaev’s case. Under this exception, law enforcement can interrogate a suspect without reading him/her Miranda, only if the suspect could have information regarding imminent threats to public safety. If this is met, the prosecution can admit the suspect’s statements as evidence. But it’s important to note that interrogation must be limited and focused, and only necessary to protect the public. In this case, it might be acceptable for the FBI to ask Tsarnaev, “Are there other bombs located in Boston?” but perhaps not “What steps did you and your brother take to plan the bombing?” To date, it’s unclear how extensive the FBI questioning was.

So what does this mean? The public safety exception requires balancing the public’s need for security with protecting the rights of the accused. On one hand, some say the delay between Tsarnaev’s capture and reading him his rights is a major infringement on Miranda. There’s concern that fair trials and due process become optional. It may also reduce law enforcement’s accountability and open the doors to potential abuse. However, others claim we don’t want Tsarnaev to remain silent, and there’s a necessity of gathering information about terrorism. They say the rules of enemy combatants should apply and point to issues of national security.

Depending on whether the public safety exception was met, Tsarnaev’s statements made in the hospital may – or may not – be admissible in court. On the other hand, the prosecution may choose not to use his statements in court because the case against him is already so strong – there are photos at the scene, evidence was found in his apartment, and admissions to the carjacking victim.

Whatever the decision, Miranda sets a framework for law enforcement in all cases in their attempts to obtain statements from individuals involved in criminal activity.

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