Obama Risks Losing Boston Bomber Conviction By Not Reading Miranda Rights


With President Obama's decision to try Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in court instead of an enemy combatant, as urged by some conservative politicians, the question remains when Obama will order Dzhokhar be read his Miranda rights. Much has been made of the president's controversial decision to delay reading of Miranda rights under a broad interpretation of the "public safety" exemption to the rule, which seems to go against the kinds of tactics Obama deplored as a presidential candidate in 2008 — the actual effects of on Dzhokhar's verdict will be minimal. 

Civil liberties were a hallmark of President Obama's 2008 campaign. He repeatedly criticized the Bush administration's use of torture, and the administration's tactics fighting the "War on Terror." He famously issued an executive order closing Guantanamo as his first presidential order. But his record on civil liberties has been inconsistent. After issuing the executive order, he caved in to political pushback at moving the 240 inmates to American prisons and in 2011 authorized indefinite military detention, a move criticized by civil liberties groups and many of his supporters. 

Obama's decision to rely on the public safety exception comes in front of his checkered background on civil rights.

Since recognized by the Supreme Court in 1966's Arizona v. Miranda, law enforcement officials have been required to notify detained suspects that they have the right to remain silent, that any comment can be used against them in a court of law, and that they have a right to an attorney. Evidence obtained in violation of Miranda rights is considered "fruit of the poisonous tree." Unless the prosecution can find a way to cure the evidence, usually by proving other constitutional means to obtain the evidence exist, the illegally obtained evidence will be excluded from the court proceedings.

The FBI and Obama are relying on an exception from a 1984 case for public safety for its refusal to read Dzhokhar his Miranda warnings. Much has been written about the public safety exception (including PolicyMic's own Gabriel Rodriguez) explaining its use, but in essence the Obama administration is arguing that due to the potential for continued danger — perhaps undiscovered bombs or booby traps around the city — reading of Miranda rights aren't required. If the Obama administration is wrong, it risks losing any evidence obtained prior to administering the warnings.

In many cases, excluded evidence can mean the difference between a conviction and the defendant walking home free. If a small time drug dealer in a moment of panic after an arrest confesses everything before being read his rights, the Miranda rule could lead to a reversal. However, with so much external evidence from surveillance camera footage from the Boston Marathon, the high-speed chase and shoot-out with cops, not to mention circumstantial evidence such as terrorist-themed videos on his brother's YouTube accounts, Amazon wish lists listing books on forging IDs, etc. the exclusion of confessions made without Miranda rights will have little effect on the conviction. Even if the Obama administration miscalculates whether the public safety exception applies, there is ample evidence from other sources to convict Dzhokhar.

Neglecting civil liberties may offend President Obama's liberal supporters and conservative foes alike, any infringements will have little impact on the case. The prosecution has plenty of evidence beyond confession to convict the suspected bomber.