The "Public Safety" Exception to Miranda
Benoit, Carl A., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
After 44 years, the Miranda decision stands as a monolith in police procedure. (1) Its requirements are so well known that the Supreme Court remarked, "Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture." (2) And, although the Supreme Court has clarified and refined Miranda over the years, its central requirements are clear. (3) Whenever the prosecution seeks in its direct case to introduce a statement made by a suspect while in custody and in response to interrogation, it must prove that the subject was warned of specific rights and voluntarily waived those rights. (4) The penalty imposed on the prosecution for failing to prove that the Miranda procedures were properly followed is harsh. While some secondary and limited uses of statements obtained in violation of Miranda are permitted, such statements are presumed to be coerced and cannot be introduced by the prosecution in its direct case. (5)
The strength of the Miranda decision is its nearly unwavering protection of a suspect's Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The commitment to this rule is so strong that the Supreme Court has recognized only one exception to the Miranda rule--the "public safety" exception--which permits law enforcement to engage in a limited and focused unwarned interrogation and allows the government to introduce the statement as direct evidence.
Recent and well-publicized events, including the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 235 near Detroit, Michigan, on December 25, 2009, and the attempted bombing in New York City's Times Square in May 2010, highlight the importance of this exception. (6) Those current events, occurring in a time of heightened vigilance against terrorist acts, place a spotlight on this law enforcement tool, which, although 26 years old, may play a vital role in protecting public safety while also permitting statements obtained under this exception to be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution. In brief, and as discussed in this article, police officers confronting situations that create a danger to them-selves or others may ask questions designed to neutralize the threat without first providing a warning of rights. This article discusses the origins of the public safety exception and provides guidance for law enforcement officers confronted with an emergency that may require interrogating a suspect held in custody about an imminent threat to public safety without providing Miranda warnings.
ORIGIN OF THE RULE
The origin of the public safety exception to Miranda, the case of New York v. Quarles, began in the early morning hours of September 11, 1980. While on routine patrol in Queens, New York, two New York City police officers were approached by a young woman who told them that she had just been raped. She described the assailant as a black male, approximately 6 feet tall, wearing a leather jacket with "Big Ben" printed in yellow letters on the back. The woman told the officers that the man had just entered a nearby supermarket and that he was carrying a gun.
The officers drove to the supermarket, and one entered the store while the other radioed for assistance. A man matching the description was near a checkout counter, but upon seeing the officer, ran to the back of the store. The officer pursued the subject, but lost sight of him for several seconds as the individual turned a corner at the end of an aisle. Upon finding the subject, the officer ordered him to stop and to put his hands over his head. As backup personnel arrived, the officer frisked the man and discovered he was wearing an empty shoulder holster. After handcuffing him, the officer asked where the gun was. The man gestured toward empty milk cartons and said, "The gun is over there." The officer found and removed a loaded handgun from a carton, formally placed the man under arrest, and then read the Miranda rights to him. …