Tag Archives: Miranda rights

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.

This Week Sort of Felt Like the World was Ending

20 Apr

Important!  This piece is me working out some of my conflicting thoughts about what has transpired over the last week.  I hope in reading this, people understand that I feel relieved that the suspects have both been taken off the streets, although I do regret that one of them was killed.  I feel relieved, but I do not feel happy, or celebratory.  What they are accused of having done was undoubtedly horrific.  But I am worried that, once again, we as a society are going to miss a very crucial moment in political time to ask hard questions about why this has happened.  Please keep that in mind as you read.

This has been a really awful and confusing week and I feel, to put it simply, quite conflicted.  When those bombs went off in Boston on Monday I, along with everyone else, was totally shocked.  I had come home from a run to text messages from friends asking me if I knew and if I was alright – some people thought it possible that I was there.  I spent the next two hours in my sweaty running clothes glued to a live stream, hungering for any information at all that would give a clue of who could have done something so horrible, and why.  I know I was not alone.  This week has seen me scouring news sources, reading every single update about the explosion, the victims, the hunt for clues as to the identities of the perpetrators.  I knew that, in a busy shopping district dotted with high-end stores, there would undoubtedly be images captured on video, it was only a matter of time.  And then the time came.

To see the images of these men who were suspected to have out carried out this gruesome attack was mixed.  I was glad that some headway had been made, that there were suspects in mind but at the same time I was sad.  I knew that the attack had happened, I knew that nothing I could think or say could take us back to Monday morning, to a time when these men could have been thwarted or changed their minds.  But seeing them and knowing full well that if they were caught alive their lives would be ruined, along with the lives of so many that were ruined on Monday, made me think:  another two casualties.  Intellectually, I knew it was too late and they would face justice, as they should.  But as a human being, I couldn’t help but think about what it was that inspired them, and specifically, what flipped the younger brother who, by all accounts, had always seemed a good kid.  I felt sad that we, the inhabitants of the world, lost him to this evil.

Thursday was a particularly hard night for all of us, I think.  Information was coming out, but haltingly.  Barely anyone was covering the shooting at MIT.  No one was saying whether or not it was connected to the Monday bombing.  It really felt like, combined with the failure of the background check bill in the Senate and the plant explosion in Texas, the world was ending.  Nothing made any sense.  Everything, everywhere seemed completely out of control.  I waited with baited breath for the next thing to happen, for the next report to come out, for it to be in New York, or DC, for it to be something big.  Thankfully, the thing I was waiting for never happened, it never came.

And then Friday. I spent the day glancing at my Twitter feed, checking the New York Times website, looking up at CNN at work until the second brother, a 19-year-old kid, was found hiding in a boat in someones backyard.  The whole city had been shut down, militarized, and there he was, in a boat on the grass.  And now we’re safe.

But I wonder, are we really? When I wrote my thoughts about Boston on Tuesday, I wondered, among other things, about what sort of security implications the bombing would have for marathons, the spectators and the runners, going forward.  Now that one bother is dead and the other is in custody, now that the imminent threat is gone, I am more worried than ever before.  We have a moment right now where everyone is listening, both domestically and internationally.  We have a moment, right now, where we can have a really serious conversation about why this happened and I don’t just mean why the brothers decided to do what they did I mean why, in a bigger context, what sort of social, economic, political, racial, historical factors might have played a role.  President Obama, in his statement after the younger brother was captured, asked

“Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?”

It’s a good question.  It’s a big question, and important one.  Probably bigger and more important than most people think at first.  What is it that makes people like the Tsarnaev brothers, like Major Nidal Malik Hasan of Ford Hood, like Najibullah Zazi who planned the failed 2009 attack on the New York City subway system go from seemingly normal, adjusted people to not? At some point we have to stop pointing the finger at them, at Islam, at whatever.  At some point we have to turn the mirror on ourselves.

Think about Sunil Tripathi, the missing Brown student, who was at first thought to be one of the bombers, largely thanks to Reddit.  And then think of Salah Eddine Barhoum who was questioned soon after the bombings.  I can’t imagine the kind of impact it must have on a young person’s life to have their face wrongly associated with such an awful event.  And the impact it has on other young people of color who see this unfolding before their eyes and realize that could have been them, they could have been accused.  I doubt it makes a lot of people feel terribly American.  I doubt it makes them happy or feel safe.

And then there’s this increased use of the suspension of Miranda rights, thanks in large part to the Obama administration, that has been supported by many of the same senators who voted no on the background check bill.

So as I said, I feel conflicted.  I want to know why these brothers did what they did, too.  I want to have some answers.  But I also want to have some harder conversations and I’m really afraid that, once again, we will miss the boat.