by Eliza Scharfstein on Friday, May 17th, 2013
At 8 p.m. on April 19th, Boston citizens, with the rest of the United States, sat glued to their televisions as authorities, after a week of searching, captured Marathon Bombing suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev, who was found hiding in a boat in the backyard of a Watertown home. In the hours after the city-wide lockdown was lifted, the city was relieved–but many questions remained unanswered. Were there still any bombs in the area? Was this plot part of some greater scheme? Had the suspects been formally trained? Who influenced the brothers? Officials faced the matter of whether to compromise the answers to these questions by reading the Miranda Warning to the surviving brother.
Appearing throughout movies, television, and books when police make an arrest, the Miranda Warning is a constitutionally-mandated speech that explains the suspect’s right to silence, an attorney, and other court matters. Commonly resembling the classic cop speech “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you at interrogation time and in court,” the Miranda Warning reminds people of their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. If the warning is not given, nothing a suspect says is permissible as evidence in court. You might have heard someone say, “I plead the Fifth” when he does not want to answer questions in court, referencing this right.
However, there is an exception to the law: when public safety is potentially endangered. Instituted in 1984 after a Supreme Court ruling, the “public safety exception” allows officials to proceed with questioning before the Miranda Warning is given. In these situations, anything said by the suspect can be used in court. This exception was used in the Boston Bombings case to ask Dzhokar if the brothers had planted any more bombs. While these questions were important to ensure immediate public safety, authorities apparently continued with further questions, such as whom they worked with, how they built the bombs, and how they became radicalized, none of which fall under the public safety exception related to immediate danger.
Some fear that broadening the exception beyond an immediate threat to society could fall down a slippery slope and eventually result in officers taking advantage of suspects, with suspects incriminating themselves because they are unaware of their rights. Others, however, worry that officials could lose an opportunity to gain valuable, life-saving information from suspects after reading them their rights. After all, in the Tsarnaev case, before reading the Miranda warning, the suspect was cooperative in answering questions, but he “chose” to remain silent once he was read his rights a few days after his capture.
The situation offers a complex, intriguing example of the struggle between protecting our society from both immediate and future threats and maintaining sight of our constitutional Fifth Amendment rights. Although the public safety exception, which applies only to immediate threats, is essential to protecting civilians, the risk of abuse is too high with this exception. Once interrogations broaden beyond the scope of immediate threats to questioning about future ones, the exception should not apply. This approach does not prevent authorities from continuing with questioning to find out about less immediate, broader-scheme threats; however, prosecutors should not be permitted to use it as evidence against the suspect in court. We must remember the reason for adopting the Miranda Warning back in 1966. Emily Bazelon of Slate puts the initial intentions of the Miranda ruling eloquently: “It is to stop law enforcement authorities from committing abuses. Because when they can make their own rules, sometime, somewhere, they inevitably will.”
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