Miranda Warnings at the Forefront of the Criminal Investigation in Boston

The week beginning Monday, April 15, 2013 may be the most tumultuous in the history of Boston, Massachusetts, and it surely ranks high for the nation as a whole. With one suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing dead and the other in custody, much attention turned to reports that the FBI did not read the Miranda warnings, the well-known list of a criminal suspect’s rights, to the surviving suspect upon or soon after his arrest. Law enforcement cited the “public safety doctrine” as the basis for its decision to withhold the Miranda warnings. This led to much discussion in the news media and elsewhere about the Miranda warnings, which demonstrated a wide range of interpretations of what the warnings are and what they mean. Criminal defense attorneys know that the Miranda warnings are a critical part of protecting criminal defendants’ constitutional rights, such as the right against self-incrimination and the right to legal counsel. It is worth reviewing the obligations of law enforcement under Miranda and the rights that the warnings protect.

Police took the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, into custody the night of Friday, April 19. Authorities announced soon after that they had not read him the Miranda warnings, and they did not say when they intended to do so. They cited concerns about possible other dangers to the public and the need to question the suspect, which in turn led to some public concern that police would effectively suspend the due process rights of Tsarnaev, who is a naturalized United States citizen, in the interest of “national security.” The news media reported on Sunday, April 21 that law enforcement officers had read Tsarnaev his rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court established the obligation of law enforcement to inform criminal suspects of their rights in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). The court found that police had violated Ernesto Arturo Miranda’s rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments when they interrogated him during his arrest. The ruling held that prosecutors may not use statements obtained during “custodial interrogation” unless they can show that police used “procedural safeguards to secure the privilege against self-incrimination.” Id. at 444. While the court did not provide specific language for police to read, it established familiar language like the “right to remain silent.” Id. Prosecutors may still bring charges against a suspect if police never read the Miranda warnings, but they cannot use statements made by the suspect during a police interrogation as evidence of guilt. According to news reports, Tsarnaev confessed his involvement in the bombings to investigators before the reading of the warnings, which might prevent prosecutors from using his confession as evidence.

The “public safety exception” allows police to question a suspect for a limited period of time and for limited purposes without reading the Miranda warnings. The Supreme Court defined this exception in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984), in which a police officer questioned a suspect about the location of a gun before reading the Miranda warnings. The court ruled that officers may briefly delay the reading of the warnings in order to “ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety.” Id. at 656. The central concern should be some imminent threat to the public and a need to obtain information from the suspect quickly. Whether the conditions surrounding Tsarnaev’s arrest and interrogation met that standard may remain a subject of debate for some time.

Criminal defendants have rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, statutes, and court procedures. Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, has fought for the rights of west Texas defendants for over twenty years. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.

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