Miranda and the Public Safety Exception

As I wrote previously, the Miranda warning is a fiction created by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Nowhere in the Constitution will you find anything even close to a requirement to advise criminal suspects of their rights.

Miranda is grossly misunderstood. Movies and television give the impression that Miranda must be read immediately upon arrest or the arrest is invalid. This is far from the case. Miranda is two pronged. The first prong is that a person must be in custody. The second prong is that a person must be being asked investigative questions. A person not in custody can be freely questioned without having been read the warning as long as the person consents to the questioning.

Let us examine the following scenario:

A peace officer on patrol spots a bandit snatching a purse from a lady. The peace officer chases down the bandit, captures him, and then hauls him to jail. The peace officer never asks the suspect any questions about the crime and the Miranda warning is never read.

Good arrest? Bad arrest? Will the case be tanked due to the lack of the warning?

The answer is good arrest with no Miranda issues.

Now, if the peace officer, after having captured the suspect, had chosen to ask the suspect questions about the crime, the warning would have been required. Failure to do read the warning would have resulted in any evidence obtained as a result of the questioning being thrown out of court. It is important to note that the initial arrest would still be a good arrest.

Since we have gotten all of the above out of the way, we can move on to the point of this piece which is the public safety exception. This exception is triggered only when there is immediate danger. It originated in the case of New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984), in which officers responding to a reported rape approached a suspect in a grocery store and captured him after a short chase. During a frisk of the suspect, an empty holster was discovered, and upon being asked where the gun was, the suspect gave up the location. He was later Mirandized and formally questioned.

At trial, the court tossed the disclosure of the firearm’s location as well as all resulting questioning. The ruling was appealed and initially upheld, but the SCOTUS reversed the rulings of the lower courts and held that the initial questions were prompted by an immediate concern for public safety.

Note the use of the word “immediate”. The Court didn’t establish a blanket exception here. It only established an exception when there is an immediate public safety concern. Once that initial immediate public safety concern is alleviated the exception no longer applies. In the scenario of the Quarles case, once the firearm was located the officers read the warning prior to formally questioning the suspect.

So, suppose a bombing suspect was hiding in a boat in someone’s back yard, and a swarm of cops descended upon the scene to capture him. Whilst doing so, if they asked about bombs and weapons in an attempt to safely secure the suspect and the scene, then such questions would be good to go. However, when that suspect, should he survive his wounds, is formally questioned about his involvement in the bombing and ties to terror organizations, Miranda will most definitely apply.

None of this would matter in the first place if SCOTUS had not created the Miranda warning in the first place.


  1. I believe that straight forward, well articulated explanations such as yours are a true public service…or would be, were more members of the public to read them. Although I MIGHT almost buy the argument that exclusionary rules like Mapp, Escobedo, and Miranda (i.e. rules that exclude evidence that not inherently unreliable) are legitimate in terms of protecting the dignity of the judicial system, I am dismayed when I witness attempts to justify such rules on the basis of deterring police misconduct.

    First, the vast majority (I’d guess over 90%, but let me know if you disagree or have some data) of law enforcement agencies track arrest numbers for individual officers, without tracking the rates of, or reasons for, dismissals, acquittals, or for successful motions to suppress evidence. Second, when a guilty criminal is freed, it is not the constable who bungled who is injured thereby; it is the criminal’s next victim.

    Of course, the fact remains that, prior to some of exclusionary rules, a lot of law enforcement officers were doing a lot of things they knew to be wrong and/or illegal, but were doing them anyway, because they saw no practical reason not to. The risk of being held liable in a civil action was minimal to non-existent, and the courts might have given lip service to being appalled, but had been allowing into evidence the fruits of the bad behavior…in effect becoming accessories-after-the-fact.

    I am curious as to how you and other people would feel about a different approach- allowing juries to hear/see reliable evidence, even if improperly seized, while, at the same time eliminating two impediments to citizens (even those who commit crimes) from obtaining redress through civil law suits? As matters now stand, unless the person whose rights were violated can show actual intent to violate his or her civil rights, or at least something very close to intent, they can not get very far with either a federal or state claim. Not even showing gross negligence or considerable incompetence is likely to get a plaintiff as far as a jury trial. And, in Georgia, even if officers act without probable cause (in a situation in which it is required), a law suit will be dismissed in its early stages, unless the plaintiff also can present evidence of malice. And, even if there is evidence that an officer acted with actual malice, withheld evidence, and/or even perjured himself or herself, in order to secure a warrant, a law suit still will be dismissed if, mixed in with all that, there still was enough evidence to amount to probable cause. Even if an officer lies to the grand jury, to get an indictment, the accused has no civil recourse, even if the officer’s perjury is later revealed.

    What do you (plural) say? Would it not be better, not only in terms of fairness, but even in terms of giving cities, counties, schools, etc. financial incentives to get serious about screening, supervising, and training, if officers and their employers were stripped of much (not necessarily all) of the immunity that now shields them from being held accountable for sloppy work…and much worse? Give them/us a pass on simple negligence, but who but the worst elements benefit from protecting officers and agencies from being held responsible for gross negligence or incompetence? Why should it be only the people they injure or abuse who are left holding the bag?

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