Miranda and the Public-Safety Exception

30 May

I read this quote yesterday from the Supreme Court case of Ex Parte Milligan* which was decided in 1866:

“The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances.”

This all made me think about the public-safety exception to the Miranda warning against self-incrimination.  So the deal with Miranda for those of you who don’t (a) watch a lot of Law and Order or (b) read a lot of legal things is that if a suspect is questioned before he is read his rights then those statements are not admissible in court.  According to this article, the public-safety exception was first introduced in 1982 by Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals.  The case that is invoked in any debate over the constitutionality of the public safety exception is New York v. Benjamin Quarles.  The Quarles case went as follows:  in 1980 a woman in Queens flagged down a police cruiser and told the officers that she had been raped by an armed man who subsequently fled into a grocery store.  The officers then went into the store, corned Quarles, frisked him and upon seeing his empty gun holster asked him, before reading him his rights, where the gun was.  He gestured towards an empty carton of detergent, the cops retrieved the gun, and then they read him his rights.

After that it all gets kind of confusing for me.  The law and math are two things that always sort of make my brain into a pretzel.  In the end it seems as though this action was allowed because it was spontaneous as opposed to planned out.  I suppose it couldn’t really have been planned out because this was the case that established the public-safety exception which basically says that if the police think that there is a clear and present threat of danger to the public, and that a suspect possesses information that can put an end to that threat, the police can question that person before reading him his Miranda rights without officially violating the established procedure. (Did that make sense? Because I totally just confused myself.)  I do get the sentiment behind it but I also think that if we think about it in keeping with the aforementioned quote, it is a bit of a problem.  Maybe I would be singing a different tune if I was in the middle of a public safety emergency and there was some person who had all the information and because of Miranda wasn’t saying anything.  Or maybe I wouldn’t be because Miranda has protected far more people than the public-safety exception and, in the grand scheme of things, is worth protecting at all costs.

Or maybe I am having too simplistic a view of all this.  Maybe I am being too idealistic.  I just think that no matter what we do, no matter how evil it might be, we are still human.  Part of the purpose of the law in this country, as I understand it anyway, is that it is there to protect people.  Sometimes that means that through improper action of the police or legal teams, guilty people go free and they commit horrible crimes again.  In a perfect system, that would not be the case.  But the reason we have things the way that we have them is so that we can check the system, so we can make sure that people are being treated equally despite their race, class, religion, gender, or whatever.  And things still aren’t perfect.  I just think that given the way that things are going, having this public-safety exception is more dangerous than anything else; it’s a slippery slope.  At a time when people are afraid of things is precisely the time when government has more leeway to overstep historical boundaries, and it is also the time when we need things like the law to keep that in check.

Then again, maybe I need to think more about this. Either way, I really like that quote.

*This was one of the first cases decided after the end of the Civil War and said that as long as civilian courts are still operational, it is unconstitutional to try a civilian in a military tribunal.

One Response to “Miranda and the Public-Safety Exception”

  1. creatingcarrie July 2, 2013 at 8:52 am #

    Ex Parte Milligan was one cases I had to do in Con Law. Criminal Procedure also gives me a headache. 😉

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