Bloomberg View: The Boston Bombings and the Law

Protecting the rights of the accused is in the public’s best interest
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Even if no one ever told him so, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had the right to remain silent. And even if he never utters another word, there is probably more than enough evidence to convict him.

The main purpose of the Miranda warning is to protect the rights of the accused. Practically speaking, however, it helps protect law enforcement at least as much: Without it, any information authorities get from a suspect is inadmissible in court. They’re always free to ask whatever they want; they’re not always free to present it as evidence.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, and the relevant one in the Boston Marathon case is what is known as the “public-safety exception.” If police have reason to believe there is a ticking time bomb, say, or if a fleeing suspect tosses a loaded gun into the soap aisle at the supermarket, then authorities can question him without reading him his rights and still use the evidence against him. Three years ago, the FBI expanded this exemption. Now, at least according to the FBI, it can question a terrorist “to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat.”

Regardless of its extent—and the exemption shouldn’t be open-ended—the public-safety exception won’t much affect the fate of 19-year-old Tsarnaev. It appears the U.S. Department of Justice can easily build a criminal case based on the voluminous video, forensic, and eyewitness evidence collected in the last week. Each hour brings more news about the what, where, and when: the bombs in the backpacks, the fatal shooting of a campus police officer, the car chase through the suburban streets, the hideout and eventual capture in a backyard boat.

What remains are the why and how. “Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?” President Obama asked. “How did they plan and carry out these attacks, and did they receive any help?”

Not just the investigators deserve to know the answers to those questions. That’s why legal rules such as the Miranda warning can be so important, and should be suspended only sparingly: They increase the chances the public will get a full accounting of the crime. Otherwise, anything Tsarnaev says may never find its way into trial.

By all means, interrogate Tsarnaev about his political motivations and terrorist connections, without a lawyer present if national security demands. Eventually he will get a lawyer, and he deserves one. And the U.S. will get, and deserves, a public trial. It may not be perfect, but it is America’s first, best shot at getting answers.


    To read William D. Cohan on SEC whistle-blowers and Jonathan Alter on preventing domestic terror, go to:

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