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Are Miranda Exceptions Now on Your Radar?


When the Justice Department invoked the public safety exception to the Miranda rights of the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, were you surprised? Did you know about this and other exceptions to the Miranda rule? 

The public safety exception to Miranda warnings is 26 years old, but for many Americans, including a lot of attorneys, it was news. This exception has actually become an increasingly important tool in some recent and well-publicized events, including in the “underwear bomber” case.

In New York v Quarles (1984) 467 US 649, 81 L Ed 2d 550, 104 S Ct 2626, the Supreme Court held that the public safety exception applies when questions asked are primarily related to an objectively reasonable need to protect police officers or the public from immediate danger. In his article on the public safety exception in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Carl A. Benoit succinctly states the exception as this: “police officers confronting situations that create a danger to themselves or others may ask questions designed to neutralize the threat without first providing a warning of rights.”

The breadth of the public safety exception is the subject to much debate. The ACLU argues that “[t]he public safety exception should be read narrowly” and that “[i]t applies only when there is a continued threat to public safety and is not an open-ended exception to the Miranda rule.” This debate will likely be fueled by the exception’s use in the Boston bombings suspect’s case. It may not impact that case, given all of the other evidence against the suspect, but it may advance an understanding of the parameters of the exception.

In addition to the public safety exception, there’s another exception to the Miranda rule that is sometimes referred to as the “rescue doctrine.” When a suspect voluntarily answers questions asked by officers who are primarily concerned with rescuing the victim and don’t want to impede their efforts by giving the Miranda warnings, the suspect’s responses are admissible. People v Davis (2009) 46 C4th 539, 591, 94 CR3d 322. The rescue doctrine has also been applied to situations in which a defendant was thought to be the one endangered, e.g., if the defendant had swallowed a large quantity of cocaine. It will be interesting to see whether this exception will be used in terrorism cases.

There’s also an exception to Miranda for routine booking questions. This exception gets tricky when questions asked during booking result in a confession. This usually requires a decision on whether the questions were legitimate booking questions or a pretext for eliciting incriminating information.

In a time of heightened vigilance against terrorist acts, we are likely to see more use of these and other exceptions and more debate on incursions into Miranda. For answers on Miranda issues and virtually every other question about criminal law practice, turn to CEB’s California Criminal Law Procedure and Practice, widely known as the “crim law bible.”

Other CEB blog posts of interest:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

3 replies on “Are Miranda Exceptions Now on Your Radar?”

I must point out, the facts in the Quarles decision involved the officer asking one question (“Where’s the gun?”) immediately seizing the suspect and the suspect gave one response (“Over there.”) before he was Mirandized. Thus, the decision seems imminently reasonable.

However, the Justice Department, based on this decision, has decided the period of time before Miranda is required can range up to 48-hours and not require any reasonable belief of immediate danger, only the possibility of some danger somewhere.

I suggest the DoJ view is likely more expansive than the SCOTUS may uphold.

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