As politicians and commentators square off over terrorism defendants like Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square bomb plotter, being read their Miranda rights an important point is often missed. The United States Supreme Court has carved out a critical exception to the iconic legal rule that is often overlooked, but very important in cases like this. During a press conference at the Justice Department the FBI's Deputy Director John Pistole mentioned that the 30 year old naturalized American citizen from Pakistan was questioned pursuant to the public safety exception to the Miranda rule and that he provided authorities with valuable information. Pistole also explained that Shahzad continued his cooperation even after he was read his rights. Shahzad's charges in federal district court in Manhattan relate to terrorism and use of a weapon of mass destruction.
One of the most widely known Supreme Court cases in American history, Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) set forth the rule that a criminal suspect in custody must be advised of his rights once interrogation commences. The 5-4 landmark decision issued June 13, 1966 was one of a string of criminal procedure reforms handed down under the stewardship of liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren -- appointed by Republican President Eisenhower over a decade earlier. Ernesto Miranda's conviction for rape was overturned because he was not properly informed of his rights before confessing to his crime. After being retried Miranda was convicted and four years after his release was stabbed to death. Once apprehended one of the suspects in his death was read a "Miranda warning." The Miranda due process rights inform a suspect of their right to remain silent, that anything they say may be adversely used, and that they have a right to an attorney.
Almost twenty years after Miranda the United States Supreme Court under the more conservative leadership of Chief Justice Warren Burger reined in Miranda for the first time by carving the public safety exception. In New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984), the High Court held that in limited circumstances where legitimate concerns about public safety exist, evidence and statements are admissible in a subsequent trial even when a suspect is not informed of his Miranda rights. In Quarles an armed rape suspect fled into a supermarket where he ditched his gun. Upon capture by the NYPD he was found to have an empty shoulder holster and was asked where his gun was. The court held that a public safety exception existed because the abandoned gun was a danger to the public.
As discussion about who should get Miranda rights intensifies, the exception as much as the rule should also carve the parameters of the debate.