Monday, January 14, 2013

Stray handgun triggers public-safety exception to Miranda

Firearms are all the talk these days, a few weeks after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Society does not know what to do about mass shootings, but we can all agree that guns are dangerous. For that reason, this fellow loses his criminal appeal.

The case is United States v. Ferguson, decided on December 6. As you know from watching too much television, the police have to read your Miranda rights upon arrest. But there is a "public safety" exception to the Miranda rule that says the police can interrogate the defendant without Miranda to protect everyone else. This case once again reminds us of the chaos that befalls human civilization as the defendant fired a gun into the air after a woman threatened him with a bottle in a public place. When Ferguson was taken into police custody, they did not read his Miranda rights and later recovered the gun in his sister's apartment. Of course, under normal circumstances, anything he said during that interrogation would be inadmissible at trial. But, like I said, there is a public safety exception to Miranda, and it applies here, which means the conviction for unlawfully possessing a firearm is affirmed.

During the interrogation, the police learned that no one had recovered Ferguson's weapon. The gun could have been lying around anywhere in a densely-populated areas, the police feared. A child might find the gun. So the police "wanted to make sure that we could try and find out where this gun was as soon as possible." The police thus began pelting him with questions about the whereabouts of the weapon. They thought that Miranda warnings "might have scared Ferguson where he wouldn't tell him where the gun was." And that's how the police found out where the gun was.

It's all legal under the public safety exception to Miranda, even if the police made a conscious choice to push aside Miranda. The motion to suppress Ferguson's admissions -- which led to his conviction -- was properly denied, the Court of Appeals (Katzmann, Leval and Cabranes) says. This was not an investigatory interrogation where the police are solely trying to solicit testimonial evidence. Under those circumstances, Miranda applies. While the questioning did not take place on-the-spot (a common scenario in many public safety cases) and took place at the police station 1-2 hours after the incident, the police were concerned about an imminent threat to public safety. A functioning weapon was believed to be lying around somewhere, and the police had reason to believe that Ferguson had in fact possessed that gun.  

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