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April 24, 2013

House of Burgess: Read him his rights, already

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wasn't Mirandized.

— “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

Those are the words Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did not hear Friday night when he was taken into custody. Police cited the so-called “public safety exception” to the usually required Miranda warning. The Supreme Court has outlined this allowance as any situation in which the subject potentially has information that is an immediate threat to the community as a whole. I wasn’t previously aware of this asterisk tacked onto the result of the Miranda v. Arizona decision, but it is very real.

“The ‘public safety’ exception to Miranda is a powerful tool with a modern application for law enforcement,” wrote Special Agent Carl A. Benoit in the February 2011 edition of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. “When police officers are confronted by a concern for public safety, Miranda warnings need not be provided prior to asking questions directed at neutralizing an imminent threat, and voluntary statements made in response to such narrowly tailored questions can be admitted at trial.”

I can understand why tensions were running high after an almost unreal week of explosions, murder, chases and lockdowns in the Boston area. Was the public actually in danger even after Tsarnaev was apprehended? I honestly don’t know the answer. But what I do know is that post-9/11, the federal government’s definition of what determines if a subject is a danger to public safety has developed drastically. Since that fateful Tuesday 12 years ago, the suspension of civil rights has been frightening and ever-expanding. (See also: the Patriot Act, domestic drones, increased video surveillance in public places, etc.)

“There seems to be enormous pressure, in and out of government, to treat this suspect like an international terrorist, whether he is one or not,” wrote Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic. “Federal officials want to do so because it’s the post 9/11 narrative for which they have planned. Listening to the breathless media coverage Friday, for the hours upon hours where nothing was happening, one could almost sense from the Beltway consultants and analysts as well a collective willing of this case to morph into an al-Qaida one. What was the basis for the speculation? A few videos on a website. A visit to Chechnya.”

In this particular case, I truly don’t understand why law enforcement would take this non-Mirandizing route. First of all, Mirandizing someone doesn’t really take that long. The version of the warning quoted at the beginning of this column only ran 64 words in all. It’s not like taking a few seconds to read him his rights would hold up the investigation in any meaningful way. The other thing is, he probably already knows his rights, just as most of us do. Tsarnaev is a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Any college kid has most certainly, whether by accident or by choice, gotten roped into at least one “Law and Order” marathon on basic cable. Even if he hasn’t, the warning is so ingrained it’s hard to imagine a scenario where someone with even a passing understanding of American popular culture wouldn’t be able to rattle off some version of it. Not reading Tsarnaev his rights may seem like a minor development in a much larger story, but it worries me because I’m not sure where this all ends.

“No matter how unsympathetic accused terrorists are, the precedents the government sets for them matter outside the easy context of questioning them. When the law gets bent out of shape for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it’s easier to bend out of shape for the rest of us,” wrote Slate’s Emily Bazelon. “The next time you read about an abusive interrogation, or a wrongful conviction that resulted from a false confession, think about why we have Miranda in the first place. It’s to stop law enforcement authorities from committing abuses. Because when they can make their own rules, sometime, somewhere, they inevitably will.”

Do we as a country believe it is acceptable to hand over civil rights in order to feel safe?

I will now exercise my right to remain silent.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.

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