Miranda Rights and the Boston Bomber

Posted By Rogan Law || 23-Apr-2013

Miranda Rights and the Boston Bombings

An event praising the determination, physical prowess, and athleticism of all runners throughout the world turned into a tragic and chaotic episode because of the misguided hatred of two men. The Times Leader reports that the Boston Bomber may face the death penalty for his atrocious acts.

The Marathon Bombings which rocked the streets of Boston and shocked the conscience of all viewers leave many legal questions open for debate and discussion. Issues regarding the importance of Miranda Rights, public safety, and weapons of mass destruction have been vigorously debated by the news networks for the past week and deserve and in-depth analysis from a legal standpoint. We will focus on the Miranda warnings and the right to be free from self-incrimination.

Miranda Rights

The 5th Amendment to the Constitution reads as follows:

"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

The phrase "nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself" created a monumental wall against the police forcing a person accused as a crime from self-incrimination. Early in American history, police would use physically coercive tactics to obtain confessions and the police tactics were often criticized as violating the spirit of the 5th Amendment. The 1960's movement against police brutality combined with a politically liberal Supreme Court led to the historic decision Miranda v. Arizona which guaranteed that any statement obtained as a result of custodial interrogation cannot be used at a criminal trial unless the police proved that they gave the criminal defendant the proper procedural safeguards.

Miranda warnings also inform the criminal defendant that they have a right to have a lawyer present during interrogation who can provide advice and counsel to protect their rights. Although a person accused of a crime can "waive" their Miranda Rights, the waiver must be voluntary and intelligently given. In sum, the Miranda Rights must be spoken or read in clear manner and the criminal defendant must understand the rights in order for the police to use any statement in court.

Origin of the Public Safety Exception to Miranda Rights

In New York v. Quarles, the Supreme Court first recognized a "public safety" exception to forcing police officers to recite or read the criminal defendant his Miranda Rights. In Quarles, police learned that a woman had been raped and that the suspect was armed and fled to a nearby convenient store. Police then entered the store and chased down the suspect. Police then noticed that the weapon holster was empty and asked where the gun was to which the suspect pointed to empty crates. The lower court ruled the statement violated Miranda, but on appeal, the Supreme Court carved out an exception to reading Miranda Rights when there is an immediate or imminent threat to public safety. The immediacy should be something similar to instinctual behavior in questioning a suspect rather than a well-crafted plan to coerce the suspect in custody.

Pennsylvania's Application of the Public Safety Exception

The public safety exception to the requirement of police reciting the Miranda Warnings to a defendant in police custody was challenged in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Commonwealth v. Sepulveda in 2004. In Sepulveda, police responded to a reported domestic violence call and arrived on the defendant's property to find blood trails and a bloody jacket. The police then announced their presence and placed the suspect in handcuffs and in the back of the police cruiser. Without reading the Miranda Rights to the suspect, police asked "where is the girl." The suspect responded that there was no girl and that "they were in the basement" and that "he shot them." The suspect was referring to two dead males whom he shot during a violent confrontation.

A jury found the defendant guilty of murder and was sentenced to the death penalty. The Defendant appealed the ruling challenging the admissibility of the statement he made in the back of the police car because he wasn't read his Miranda Rights. The Supreme Court held that the public safety exception applied because the "based on these circumstances, the troopers were not attempting to elicit an incriminating response from Appellant when they placed him in the patrol car and asked him about the woman's location, but rather, were motivated solely by a concern for their own safety and the safety of the alleged woman. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court focused on the "immediacy" and the police officers concern for the safety of the woman based upon the blood. The Court found that the mistake as to the victims was irrelevant.

However, several judges in Sepulveda wrote concurring opinions as well as one dissent regarding the applicability of the public safety exception based upon the facts. Pennsylvania as well as the Federal Government hasn't ended the debate on the need for the public safety exception nor the circumstances which warrant the exception to the protections enshrined by Miranda Rights.

Conclusion

The Boston Bombing suspect was questioned by police although he was badly injured and never read his Miranda Rights nor given the opportunity to speak with counsel. As the Courts and law enforcement officers continue to apply this exception, they must be careful not to allow the exception to swallow the rule against coercive custodial interrogations embedded into the criminal justice system through Miranda.

Key questions such as (1) when was the threat still immediate and imminent?;(2) what amount of time is considered immediate?; (3) and whether the Miranda Rights are truly more beneficial than harmful to society and the general welfare of the public?

These questions should and will be continually debated as we recover, reevaluate, and move past this tragedy.

For more questions or concerns call a Scranton Lawyer at ROGAN LAW.