The Obama administration has announced that it will employ the little-used public-safety exception to question Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev without reading him his Miranda rights.
It’s an uncommon justification that the FBI explains dates back to September 11, 1980, and involves neutralizing remaining threats to public safety before “Mirandizing” a suspect.
The origin of the public safety exception to Miranda, the case of New York v. Quarles, began in the early morning hours of September 11, 1980. While on routine patrol in Queens, New York, two New York City police officers were approached by a young woman who told them that she had just been raped. She described the assailant as a black male, approximately 6 feet tall, wearing a leather jacket with “Big Ben” printed in yellow letters on the back. The woman told the officers that the man had just entered a nearby supermarket and that he was carrying a gun.
The officers drove to the supermarket, and one entered the store while the other radioed for assistance. A man matching the description was near a checkout counter, but upon seeing the officer, ran to the back of the store. The officer pursued the subject, but lost sight of him for several seconds as the individual turned a corner at the end of an aisle. Upon finding the subject, the officer ordered him to stop and to put his hands over his head. As backup personnel arrived, the officer frisked the man and discovered he was wearing an empty shoulder holster. After handcuffing him, the officer asked where the gun was. The man gestured toward empty milk cartons and said, “The gun is over there.” The officer found and removed a loaded handgun from a carton, formally placed the man under arrest, and then read the Miranda rights to him. The man waived his rights and answered questions about the ownership of the gun and where it was purchased.
The state of New York charged the man, identified as Benjamin Quarles, for criminal possession of a weapon. The trial court excluded the statement “The gun is over there,” as well as the handgun, on the grounds that the officer did not give Quarles the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona. After an appellate court affirmed the decision, the case was appealed to the New York State Court of Appeals.
Ultimately, the case reached the Supreme Court, which decided that such public-safety exceptions do exist. “Miranda need not be strictly followed in situations ‘in which police officers ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety,’” says the FBI.
In Tsarnaev’s case, it remains unclear whether there are remaining imminent threats to public safety, but the Obama administration seems to be proceeding with caution.
President Obama is also under outside pressure to forgo reading those Miranda rights to Tsarnaev, with some Republican lawmakers calling on the president to treat the American citizen as an “enemy combatant.”
“If captured, I hope [a]dministration will at least consider holding the Boston suspect as enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted Friday afternoon.
“The last thing we may want to do is read Boston suspect Miranda Rights telling him to ‘remain silent,’” he wrote.