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Public Safety Exception to Miranda Used for Terror Suspects

Justin Elliot over at Talking Points Memo reports on the Obama administration’s use of an exception to Miranda that’s being used in an effort to gain admissible evidence during interrogations of terror suspects before the suspects are read the Miranda warning. TPM reports:

Federal agents questioned both Faisal Shahzad, the man accused of planting a makeshift bomb in Times Square, and Umar Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bomber, under the so-called public safety exception to the Miranda rule for substantial periods before informing the men of their right to remain silent, and to an attorney.

While the “public safety exception” is grounded in a 1984 Supreme Court decision, the Obama administration’s reliance on the exception in an attempt to obtain admissible evidence over hours of pre-Miranda interrogation appears to be unprecedented.

In New York v. Quarles, the Supreme Court recognized “a narrow exception” to Miranda which permits law enforcement to obtain admissible evidence from a suspect pre-Miranda warning “in a situation posing a threat to the public safety.” The exception makes the suspect’s answers admissible in future criminal proceedings even though the suspect was not read the Miranda warning before questioning began.

In Quarles, a woman who had been sexually assaulted flagged down two police officers and reported that the man who sexually assaulted her ran to a nearby grocery store. The woman stated that the man possessed a gun. The police arrived at the grocery store and spotted the suspect who fled toward the rear of the store. The police apprehended the suspect and immediately frisked him, finding an empty holster. Before reading the suspect the Miranda warning, the police asked the suspect where he stashed his gun. The suspect nodded, indicating the location of the gun, and stated, “the gun is over there.” At the subsequent criminal trial, the court excluded the suspect’s statement and the gun because the suspect gave the statement before he had been read his Miranda rights. However, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the answers provided in this situation are admissible.

Based on the narrow exception crafted by the Supreme Court in Quarles, the FBI questioned Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes and Shahzad for several hours before reading either suspect the Miranda warning. This policy poses two apparent problems.

First, in Quarles, the police knew of an immediate threat to public safety when they questioned the suspect, and the questioning was extremely limited. The police knew that the suspect hid a gun in a public space which posed an immediate risk to customers and store personnel. Moreover, the police asked the suspect only one question before Mirandizing him. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has adopted a policy that permits hours of interrogation over totally unknown potential threats. This extension of the public safety exception threatens to swallow the rule. Is the new use of Quarles limited only to terror suspects? Or could Quarles be extended to more mundane situations? Quarles’ reach is incredibly unclear under this policy. Miranda was intended to be a bright-line rule. Extending Quarles muddies the waters.

Second, no one knows whether the courts will uphold the use of the public safety exception in these circumstances. If Abdulmutallab and Shahzad are tried in regular criminal courts, the courts may very well exclude all of the information gained pre-Miranda warning. So from the perspective of law enforcement, the unprecedented extension of Quarles may make it harder for the government to convict Abdulmutallab and Shahzad if the court holds that the government overstepped Miranda’s bounds. Possibly recognizing this problem, the FBI did in fact Mirandize both suspects and elicited much of the same information the suspects had already given up pre-Miranda warning.

The Court, in Quarles, recognized the danger of crafting the public safety exception to Miranda but believed that the limits of the exception would be clear to law enforcement personnel. The Court stated, “The exception will not be difficult for police officers to apply because in each case it will be circumscribed by the exigency which justifies it. We think police officers can and will distinguish almost instinctively 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.” The extended interrogations of Abdulmutallab and Shahzad look suspiciously like attempts to elicit testimonial evidence in a potentially coercive environment.

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