Jacob Sullum
Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, captured last Friday evening, was not informed of his right to remain silent and his right to a lawyer until Monday morning, nearly three days after his arrest.

The FBI said the delay was justified under the "public safety" exception to Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 ruling in which the Supreme Court said the now-familiar warnings are required to enforce the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against compelled self-incrimination. But the public-safety exception itself is not justified, which becomes clear when you consider the 1984 decision that announced it.

New York v. Quarles involved a late-night confrontation between police and a suspected rapist at an A&P supermarket in Queens, N.Y. Officer Frank Kraft chased Benjamin Quarles into the back of the store, losing sight of him briefly before stopping, handcuffing and frisking him. Discovering an empty shoulder holster, Kraft asked where the gun was. "The gun is over there," Quarles said, nodding toward a box where Kraft found a .38-caliber revolver.

When Quarles was tried for criminal possession of a weapon, the judge excluded the gun and Quarles' statements about it from evidence because Kraft began questioning him before he had been Mirandized. Both the Appellate Division and the New York Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) upheld that decision.

The Supreme Court said all three courts had erred. "Under the circumstances involved in this case," Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority, "overriding considerations of public safety justify the officer's failure to provide Miranda warnings before he asked questions devoted to locating the abandoned weapon."

Rehnquist claimed Quarles' hidden gun posed two possible threats: "An accomplice might make use of it," or "a customer or employee might later come upon it." But as dissenting Justice Thurgood Marshall noted, there was no indication that Quarles had an accomplice, and the supermarket was deserted except for the clerks at the checkout counter. Had the police simply searched for the gun, they would have found it easily.

When Kraft asked about the gun, Quarles was handcuffed and surrounded by four officers, who felt safe enough to holster their weapons. "Nothing suggests that any of the officers was by that time concerned for his own physical safety," the Court of Appeals concluded. "There is no evidence in the record before us that there were exigent circumstances posing a risk to the public safety."


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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