Miranda Rights And The Boston Marathon Bomber

There is a great deal of misleading and confusing buzz in the traditional media and the blogosphere about the Department of Justice’s decision not to read Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights before questioning him (once his medical condition improves).  The DOJ is invoking the “public safety” exception to Miranda, set forth in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984).  

The purpose of this post is not to discuss whether that exception has been properly invoked under the circumstances of this case (although I think it has been, at least for the moment).  Rather, my objective is to clear up some confusion about Miranda itself.

Many viewers of Law and Order and similar so-called “procedurals” may be under the impression that the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona imposes upon the police a constitutional obligation to read a suspect his Miranda rights before questioning him.  That impression is wrong.  Rather, as Owen Kerr explains in his very helpful post over at The Volokh Conspiracy (a thoughtful right-of-center legal blog):

Miranda is a set of rules the government can choose to follow if they want to admit a person’s statements in a criminal case in court, not a set of rules they have to follow in every case.

In other words, the federal constitution does not require the police to read a suspect his Miranda rights before questioning him.  It simply means that if they don’t read him those rights, then any statements he makes before being read those rights are inadmissible in court (unless an exception applies).

This is hardly an unusual situation, as Jason Mazzone explains over at Balkinization (a thoughtful left-of-center legal blog):

Millions of criminal suspects are questioned every year by the police (and other law enforcement officials) without ever being advised of their rights under Miranda. Police officers I know tell me they hardly ever Mirandize individuals they arrest because cases in which the arrestee’s statements are relevant to securing a conviction (especially in a world of plea bargaining) are quite unusual. Indeed, as the Miranda Court obviously understood, when the government doesn’t need a suspect’s own statements to secure a conviction, it would be foolish to warn the suspect to stay quiet or request counsel. The physical evidence against Tsarnaev is almost certainly so overwhelming that despite the massive media attention during the past few days, on the Miranda issue, his case is quite humdrum: no need to use his own testimony at trial and so no need to warn him to stay quiet or ask for a lawyer. Nothing unconstitutional about that.

 I hope this clarifies things!

One Comment on “Miranda Rights And The Boston Marathon Bomber”

  1. Rich Wareing says:

    Dan, I was hoping you’d address Senator’s Graham argument that he should be held as an enemy combatant.

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