Misunderstanding Miranda: A Miranda warning would not endanger the Boston prosecution

—David A. Harris

[This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Read it here.]

Just hours after the second Boston bomber was taken alive, the government announced that it would not give the man Miranda warnings before questioning him. Instead, the Department of Justice said, the attacker would be questioned without warnings under the public safety exception.

The Obama administration’s interpretation of the public safety exception is suspect; its announcement that no Miranda rights would be given was transparently political, aimed at avoiding criticism from conservative quarters. Worst of all, the administration seemed to be telling the public that Miranda warnings are just petty rules—another instance of hyper-technical laws that get in the way of real justice. This is dead wrong, and it shows grave disrespect for the rule of law and the Constitution—the very things that make our country great.

Let’s start with a clear understanding of the Miranda warnings. Failing to give Miranda warnings does not interfere with the power of the police to make an arrest. Not giving the warnings does not affect the ability of the prosecution to try a suspect. In fact, not reading a suspect his Miranda warnings does not even violate the person’s rights.

The Supreme Court ruling in the Miranda case is actually quite specific: Warnings are required only if the police question a suspect while he is in custody and the district attorney wants to use the answers to prove guilt. That’s all.

If the Boston bombing suspect gets Miranda warnings and decides he wants to remain silent, won’t that destroy the case?

The simple answer is no—he will be prosecuted anyway and will very likely be found guilty, statements or not. Think of 1) the countless photos and videos, many of which show him with his brother and some of which reportedly show him leaving his backpack at the site of the second explosion moments before it occurred; 2) his statement of guilt made to a civilian during a carjacking, 3) the many officers who could testify they saw him at the shootout from which he escaped; and 4) any evidence police have seized from his home. In short, the evidence will be overwhelming; prosecutors won’t need a confession to convict him.

The idea that giving suspects Miranda warnings stops investigations cold and allows guilty criminals to go free is a myth, and it vastly underestimates the abilities of modern police officers to work successfully under the Miranda rules.

When police officers administer Miranda warnings, 85 percent of suspects talk to them anyway. For suspects with no criminal record, like the Boston bombing suspect, the number is 90 percent. Given what the warnings tell suspects—”anything you say will be used against you”—many people are shocked by this outcome. But it is human nature to talk, to explain, to avoid blame, and good police interrogators know how to take advantage of this. Miranda does not prevent them from getting the evidence they need.

In fact, the evidence in the Boston case is so great and the bomber’s guilt so certain that the suspect may wish to make statements—whether he gets Miranda warnings or not—for the purpose of avoiding the death penalty. The Miranda warnings won’t affect this.

What would happen if the suspect is questioned in custody without Miranda warnings and he makes statements of guilt?

The prosecution could not use those statements to prove his guilt, but it could still proceed with all the other evidence. And prosecutors could use answers given without Miranda warnings for purposes other than proving guilt. For example, they could still be used for intelligence purposes—to find other bombs or other people involved in the Boston plot or others. The statements also could still be used to prove the guilt of others involved under a conspiracy charge.

The government’s assertion of the public-safety exception to the Miranda rule bends that exception almost to the breaking point. The Supreme Court has said that Miranda doesn’t apply to police questioning that takes place in order to alleviate immediate, ongoing danger. But the authorities have already made clear that the Boston bad guys have been caught or killed and the danger is over. Perhaps the government might question the suspect about the existence of other explosives or plans, or whether he and his brother had other co-conspirators. But beyond those issues, the public-safety exception does not apply.

When our political leaders say that constitutional rights won’t be applied in pursuit of some greater good, they make our founding document sound like a collection of legal loopholes. They put us on the path that Ben Franklin warned us against when he wrote, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

At times like this, we need to stand strong with Boston—and with our own values. Anything less dishonors who we are.

David A. Harris is Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is the author of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012).

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