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Everybody wants to be a lawyer, but to be a lawyer you have to know the language of lawyers: Legalese. So every few days, I post a new word or term from this mysterious and esoteric language. This page features words from previous entries.

2009 Entries

Court-Martial Terms

Public Safety Exception

Last time we wrote about the Miranda Rule, which excludes the use of evidence like confessions in a criminal trial unless the accused was advised of his right to counsel and his right to remain silent. To summarize the previous article:

The Miranda warning is not always required when a suspect is taken into custody. Police may skip the warning in a case where they already have a good case without a confession or statement from the suspect. This could happen where the criminal is caught "red handed."

If you've been paying attention to the news, you may have heard about the public safety exception. This is an exception to Miranda carved out by the Supreme Court in a case called New York v. Quarles (1984).

This is the fact situation as summarized in the oral arguments to the Court: "...Officer Kraft had probable cause to believe that the Respondent [Quarles] had committed a rape and was in possession of a gun in a supermarket. When the Respondent saw Officer Kraft, he ran towards the back of the store. Kraft pursued, lost sight of him for a few seconds, caught up to him, handcuffed him, frisked him, found an empty shoulder holster, and then asked, where is the gun? The defendant indicated a carton a few feet away. He said, 'there is the gun.' [Officer] Kraft recovered the gun from that carton and then asked the defendant, 'is this your gun?' The defendant ... admitted ownership of it. And, Kraft asked where he bought it and the Respondent told him where he bought it."

The officer then formally arrested Quarles and read him his Miranda rights. The question presented to the Court was whether Quarles' statement about the gun and the gun itself should be suppressed because the officer had not yet at the time read the Miranda rights.

In a 5-4 decision the Court held that there is a public safety exception to the Miranda Rule. Since the officer's request for the location of the gun was prompted by an immediate interest in assuring that it did not injure an innocent bystander or fall into the hands of a potential accomplice to Quarles, his failure to read the Miranda warning did not violate the Constitution.

The public safety exception has been invoked to interrogate terrorism suspects without giving the Miranda warning right away. As you are probably aware, the Obama Administration has been criticized for "jumping the gun" in Mirandizing suspected terrorists.

According to a recent article, "Attorney General Eric Holder says the Obama administration would like to work with Congress to develop a more flexible Miranda rule to allow longer questioning of terrorism suspects before they are advised of their legal rights."

Miranda Rights

Just about every cop show fan knows about Miranda rights. The cop reads something like this to the prisoner off a card taped to the inside of his cap:

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the Miranda warning, however. The most common error is that the warning is always required when a suspect is taken into custody. Not so. It is not required as a matter of constitutional law.

Police, therefore, may not "Mirandize" a suspect in every case. The consequence of not doing it is that any incriminating statement made by a suspect may not be used against him at trial.

Failure to state the warning is not a violation of due process either, as some may think.

Miranda is what is known as an exclusionary rule. In other words, a confession is excluded as evidence in a trial if the suspect was not advised of his right to remain silent. It doesn't matter if the prosecutor has enough independent evidence to convict anyway. A suspect does not go free because the cops didn't read him his rights.

Also, interrogators can use anything the detainee says for other purposes (for example, in gathering intelligence). This is the crux of the controversy over if and when Miranda rights should be read to suspected terrorists.

The Miranda warning is derived from a 1966 Supreme Court decision called Miranda v. Arizona. The Court stated that a "person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he or she has the right to remain silent, and that anything the person says will be used against that person in court; the person must be clearly informed that he or she has the right to consult with an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning, and that, if he or she is indigent, an attorney will be provided at no cost to represent her or him."

Ernesto Miranda was convicted of rape. Part of the evidence was a coerced confession. After the Supreme Court decision, Miranda was retried and convicted. This time his confession was not introduced into evidence at the trial. Four years after his parole, he was stabbed and killed in a bar fight.