Recent Artice by Kat Abke of Strong & Hanni Law Firm Featured in Salt Lake Tribune Law Day Special Edition
Since Miranda v. Arizona was decided in 1966, the “Miranda Warnings” have become ingrained in the national conscience as an essential component of police procedure, so much so that the United States Supreme Court has recognized only one exception to the warning requirement. This exception, known as the public safety exception, allows police officers to intentionally delay giving Miranda warnings while interrogating a suspect who is in custody where concerns for public or officer safety outweigh the need for police to strictly follow Miranda.
In recent years, federal and local law enforcement officials across the country have been increasingly faced with the daunting task of investigating both threatened and completed terrorist activity and mass shootings. Such acts raise new and challenging issues for police, who must quickly identify and eliminate threats to public safety while preserving and upholding a suspect’s constitutional rights. To that end, state and federal courts have extended the public safety exception’s application to the questioning of terrorism suspects. While these cases highlight the exception’s importance in terrorism investigations, they have also raised questions as to its proper scope and limits.
Origin of the Public Safety Exception
The Supreme Court first recognized the public safety exception in the 1984 case, New York v. Quarles, which arose from the arrest of rape suspect in a grocery store. The officers had information that the suspect was armed but, upon frisking the suspect, found the suspect was wearing an empty holster. Believing that the gun could be somewhere in the store, an officer asked the suspect, “where’s the gun?” The suspect gestured toward a dairy case and said, “the gun is over there.” Police retrieved the gun and placed the suspect under arrest.
The Supreme Court held that the officer was not required to Mirandize the suspect before asking where the gun was located because while the gun was still at large, it presented a danger to the public. The Court held that under the public safety exception to Miranda, when officers ask focused questions necessary to secure their own safety or the safety of the public, they do not need to provide the warnings required by Miranda.
From Quarles emerged three essential factors that must be present in order for the public safety exception to apply: (1) the presence of a reasonable threat to public or officer safety; (2) the questioning must be limited and focused on eliminating the safety threat; and (3) the suspect’s statements are made voluntarily and not as a product of improper police interrogation tactics.
Public Safety Exception In Terrorism Investigations
U.S. v. Khalil involved police questioning of two suspects in connection with an apartment raid. The NYPD had received information that the suspects had bombs in their apartment that they were planning to detonate in a public bus terminal or subway station. During the raid, the officers uncovered a bag containing pipe bombs, one of which appeared to be activated. Without first giving Miranda warnings, police questioned one of the suspects as to how many bombs there were, the number of switches on each bomb, how the bombs could be disarmed, and whether the bombs had any timers, as well as whether the suspect intended to kill himself in the bombs’ explosion.
The Second Circuit determined that the public safety exception applied to the suspect’s statements made in response to these questions because the questions were clearly directed toward efforts to disarm the explosives. The court disagreed with the suspect’s argument that the question concerning his plans to detonate the bombs in a suicide bombing was unrelated to public safety, concluding that the supect’s “vision” for his survival after the explosion was relevant to the bomb’s stability and, thus, public and officer safety.
A Michigan district court also applied the public safety exception to un-Mirandized statements made to federal agents by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber”, while he was in custody at the hospital. Abdulmutallab was asked details of his travel plans, the explosive device, his plans for the attack, and the identity of his associates who might share his jihadist views. The court found that these questions were designed to elicit information about other potential attackers and potentially imminent attacks and that the agents’ limited their questioning to less than 1 hour, at which time they had enough information to address the threat to public safety.
Following the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, the FBI interrogated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for sixteen hours over the course of two days while he was in the hospital without Mirandizing him. The court never addressed the question of whether Tsarnaev’s statements made in response to this extensive questioning fell within the public safety exception because prosecutors chose not to introduce these statements as evidence at trial. However, the circumstances of this case has provoked debate as to what properly constitutes “narrow and focused” public safety-related questioning in similar investigations.
Miranda was decided decades before terrorism became an everyday concern for Americans, much less something law enforcement officials were routinely tasked with investigating. The scope of the public safety exception has been greatly expanded beyond Quarles, particularly in the context of terrorism investigations. Time will tell whether the Supreme Court will ultimately address the outer contours of this exception in this evolving area of the law.