Miranda and the “Public Safety Exception”: Is the Constitution the Next Victim?

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Much has been recently made with the events in Boston and law enforcement’s decision to interrogate their suspect before reading him his Miranda rights. This circumvention of the Constitution is not only unnecessary, it is also a misguided, dangerous precedent to set in the name safety.

We’ve all heard of Miranda v. Arizona by now, right? That’s the case where the famous lines you hear on every episode of Cops were immortalized. However, there a few important things to note about the Miranda warning most aren’t aware of.

First, the founding fathers put the right not to testify against one’s self in a criminal case in the Bill of Rights as the ultimate deterrent against government oppression and restraints of freedom. There is no more realistic or probable threat to one’s liberty than false criminal charges from the government; a prison term is the epitome of depriving freedom. Preventing the government from forcing you to convict yourself was a deliberate effort by our founding fathers to reduce the risk of unfounded, government oppression.

Second, coerced confessions have been an issue throughout history. In England, the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission thought it was easier for the government to get convictions by forcing the accused to answer any question. By the 18th century, rational minds prevailed and realized that coerced confessions were inherently unreliable. The 5th Amendment was thus created so the accused wouldn’t be convicted based on unreliable confession that were beat out of them.

Lastly, the right to an attorney is rooted in the 6th Amendment; the right not to incriminate one’s self is found in the 5th Amendment. The Supreme Court felt the right not to incriminate one’s self was so important they created another right to an attorney to protect it. And this is because the issue of coerced confession was a major issue in America before Miranda was decided. In fact, Miranda details the widespread problem of people literally being beat until they confessed to whatever officers wanted. So the Supreme Court decided that if officers want a confession to be admissible evidence, the accused has a right to an attorney to protect their rights (and probably to make sure the batons stay put).

The rationale for the 5th Amendment still rings true today. And the public safety exception could very easily lead to all the things our founding fathers were afraid of. The “public safety” exception comes from the Supreme Court case
New York v. Quarles (1984), 467 U.S. 649. In Quarles, a woman was raped and flagged down two officers on patrol. She stated the man who raped her just ran into a nearby supermarket. Once officers located the man, they searched him and found an empty gun holster. One officer then asked where the gun was, to which the man said, “the gun is over there.”

The lower courts of New York , from the trial court on up, held that the un-Mirandized statement should be excluded from trial. However, the Supreme Court overturned the previous decisions affirming the trial court. The Court reasoned that so long as the gun was unsecured it could be used by an accomplice or be found by a supermarket customer. The dissent points out though, that there was no information at all there was an accomplice; the woman said it was one man. Further, the supermarket was empty, being after midnight. Officers were so unconcerned about their safety they had already holstered their weapons by the time they were unconstitutionally questioned their suspect.

Law enforcement was using similarly flawed logic recently in Boston. Their suspect’s accomplice and brother was dead. Their suspect was incapacitated and bleeding; they watched him via infrared imagine for quite some time before moving in to arrest. Much was known about these brothers and their capabilities. Further, while it shouldn’t marginalize the horrific events of the Boston marathon, it seems clear that the terrorists did not possess a high level of sophistication.

Moreover, we as Americans should be eager to convict terrorists who attack our own, or any other citizens, without any special treatment or procedures. It seems clear there was already more than sufficient evidence to convict the living terrorist; we didn’t need an admissible confession anyway. A legitimate conviction of someone who committed a terroristic attack on American soil under the full force of the law would be true, American justice.

This isn’t to say Miranda warnings shouldn’t be dispensed in any situation. I’m sure we can all envision a scenario where public safety really is in peril and a suspect needs to be interrogated Jack Bauer style. But Boston wasn’t it. It wasn’t necessary when the suspect is bleeding profusely. And if we continue to dispense with important Constitutional rights in questionable circumstances, we could be looking at an eventual desensitization of the most basic Constitutional rights.

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