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Miranda Rights: Timing is Everything

If you watched the dramatic TV coverage of the apprehension of the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect, you may have heard, as the ambulance containing the heavily bleeding suspect pulled away, talk of whether he would be Mirandized. What is that, exactly? A high-tech procedure for closing up bullet wounds? A fancy brand-name anesthesia? Some far-out treatment administered by a hypnotist? After all, it was pretty clear the kid was about to receive the kind of medical care usually reserved for royalty and heads of state, given how important it was for authorities to have a chance to question him.

But no, the procedure in question was not medical, but legal. It refers to the requirement, established by the Supreme Court in the 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona, that police must inform suspects under arrest of their constitutional right to remain silent during questioning. Anyone who has ever watched TV has heard some form of these so-called Miranda Rights: You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law, you have a right to have an attorney present, etc. The idea is to make sure suspects know that under the Fifth Amendment, they cannot be forced to make statements that might incriminate them, because the Court felt that being arrested would likely make a person feel compelled to answer questions. So under Miranda, if the police arrest you and start asking questions before reading your rights, your answers will likely be inadmissible in court.

So, why would there even be a question of whether the suspect would be, as media-speak would have it, Mirandized? Obviously, he was going to be arrested, right? The answer lies in the one and only exception to Miranda: the Public Safety Exception. In 1982, the Supreme Court determined that Miranda requirements did not apply when law enforcement needed answers to questions specifically concerning immediate threats to public safety. In this case, the possibility that the suspect knew of other imminent attacks or bomb explosions was enough for authorities to invoke the exception and begin their interrogation immediately.

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