Is it constitutional for the FBI to forgo Tsarnaev’s Miranda warnings?

April 22, 2013

Dzhokhar TsarnaevLast week, Boston underwent quite an ordeal that started with the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon and was followed by the dangerous manhunt for the individuals responsible. The entire chain of events dominated the media.

Now that the dust has finally settled, the questions remaining are primarily legal in nature.

First, was it constitutional for the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to be questioned by law enforcement without first being read his Miranda rights?

The iconic Miranda warnings, established by the 1966 Supreme Court ruling Miranda v. Arizona, are required to be read to any suspects arrested by law enforcement before they are questioned. A failure to do this normally results in the suppression of any evidence obtained from the questioning.

Why, then, does the FBI believe it can forego Tsarnaev’s Miranda warnings?

The FBI is invoking an exception to the general rule called the “public safety exception,” established by the Supreme Court in 1984’s New York v. Quarles.

Quarles involved a police officer tracking down Benjamin Quarles in a supermarket after receiving a description of his appearance and a report that he was armed with a gun.

Quarles fled to the rear of the store upon noticing the officer, and the officer pursued. He eventually caught up to Quarles, ordered him with his gun drawn to put his hands on his head, and proceeded to frisk him.

The officer found that Quarles was wearing a shoulder holster that was empty. After handcuffing him but before reading him his Miranda warnings, the officer asked Quarles where the gun was. Quarles responded by nodding in the direction of some empty cartons and stating, “the gun is over there.”

The officer found the loaded gun, formally placed Quarles under arrest, and then read him his Miranda warnings.

Quarles moved to suppress the evidence of his response to the police questioning about the location of the gun at trial. The trial court granted the motion, and further suppressed all related evidence about Quarles’ ownership of the gun and the place of purchase as tainted by the earlier Miranda violation.

The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, who reversed, establishing the “public safety exception” to the normal Miranda requirements.

This exception applies in situations “in which police officers ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety.”

What’s important to note is that the Quarles majority did not find that the exception only applied in situations of an exigency – that is, where the officer needs information from a suspect immediately to preserve public safety.

Rather, it also applied in situations wherein the reading of Miranda warnings might well deter the suspect from responding.

Would this exception fit in Tsarnaev’s case? Apparently so.

Law enforcement officials have already stated that they are concerned about other undetonated devices placed by Tsarnaev.

If law enforcement believes that he would be “deterred” from answering questions relating to this or any other public safety concern, the public safety exception established by Quarles applies.

Some commentators have stated that the application of this rule to Tsarnaev’s situation is a trampling of his constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Perhaps it would be if the interrogating law enforcement officers did not limit their pre-Miranda questioning to issues of public safety.

However, as long as law enforcement restrains itself as such, just about any federal court in the country will uphold the use of the exception here.

The Supreme Court made it very clear in Quarles that it was willing to give police a great deal of flexibility in applying the rule as long as they are able to “distinguish…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.”

As long as the pre-Miranda questions are limited to the former category, the exception is perfectly legal under existing Supreme Court precedent.