Today marks the 34th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of New York v Quarles in which the Supreme Court established the second exception to the holding in Miranda. The public safety exception to the “Miranda Warning” requirement exist when there is an ongoing threat to public safety and the police ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for public safety.
The case behind New York v Quarles came at an important in American criminal jurisprudence. At the time, “Miranda Warnings” were required when officers asked about the locations of weapons. This created issues for certain state and federal cases in which errant weapons left by suspects could not be retrieved by asking the suspect where they were as the suspects would almost universally remain silent.
On September 11th, 1980, in Queens New York, a young woman approached two patrol officers to report that she had just been raped. The woman gave a description of the assailant and said the assailant had a gun and had just entered a nearby supermarket. Officers arrived at the supermarket, and while one officers radioed for back up, the other officer entered the store. The officer found a person matching the suspect’s description who was later identified as Mr. Benjamin Quarles who tried to flee when the officer approached him. After a brief chase, the suspect was captured. Mr. Quarles was frisked, and the officers discovered an empty gun holster. The officer asked Mr. Quarles where the gun was located, and Mr. Quarles said, “the gun is over there” gesturing toward a stack of empty grocery cartons. The officer retrieved a loaded 38. caliber revolver.
Mr. Quarles was than arrested, read his “Miranda Warning” and taken to the police station for questioning. Mr. Quarles agreed to speak without an attorney and admitted to owning the gun and purchasing it in Florida. Mr. Quarles was subsequently charged with rape and criminal possession of a weapon. However, the charge of rape was later dropped with no information regarding why. Facing felony criminal possession of a weapon, Mr. Quarles sought to have the statements made at the time of his arrest and the weapon suppressed arguing that his Miranda rights have been violated when the officers pressed him to reveal the location of the gun.
The trial court agreed with Mr. Quarles and suppressed his statements and the gun. The State appealed and the Appellate division affirmed the trial court unanimously. The State then appealed again to the New York Court of Appeals who in a 4 – 3 decision agreed with the trial court that the evidence had been properly suppressed. The New York Court of Appeals expressly rejected the argument made by the State that an “exigency exception” existed to the protections contained in Miranda. The State then sought a writ of certiorari in mid-1983 and was subsequently granted.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on January 12th, 1984. The State argued that the protections enshrined in Miranda were not absolute, and an exception existed for public safety when there is an ongoing public threat, and police ask questions with the primary purpose of public safety. In this case, the State argued that a loaded gun, laying unattended in a heavily trafficked grocery store posed an immediate and ongoing threat to public safety, and that the officers question regarding the location of the weapon was prompted by a concern for public safety rather than a search for evidence.
Mr. Quarles argued that no such exception to the protections enshrined in Miranda. Mr. Quarles also argued that the public safety concern did not outweigh the protections enshrined in the constitution.
On June 12th, 1984, the Supreme Court rendered its judgment. In a 5 – 4 decision, the majority led by Justice Rehnquist held that protections of Miranda must yield to situations in which there is an active and ongoing threat to public safety. The Justices further noted that Miranda only applies to statements made as a result of coercion, and in this case the police had not coerced a statement out of the suspect. Instead, police were concerned about the risk to public safety. Also, because no argument had ever been made that Mr. Quarles had actually been coerced, the statements were not the kind Miranda was intended to protect. The Supreme Court went on to hold that an exception to Miranda existed for public safety. The Court reasoned that the reason for Miranda’s protections could still be upheld. The Court conducted a cost benefit analyses and determined that the social utility of allowing officers to ask question related to public safety when active threats were ongoing outweighed the risk that police would force incriminating statements out of suspects. Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the Trial Courts suppression of the evidence and remanded the case to the trial court.
Justice O’Connor authored her own opinion that both concurred with the majority and dissented from the majority. Justice O’Conner agreed with Justice Marshall’s dissent in so far as the gun was not an ongoing threat to public safety. However, Justice O’Connor agreed with the majority’s holding to admit the gun as evidence because the 5th amendment only prohibits the use of compelled testimony, not physical evidence.
The dissent, authored by Justice Marshall lambasted the majority’s interpretation of Miranda, and disregard for the New York Court of Appeals finding that the missing weapon was not an ongoing threat to public safety. The dissent also pointed out that Miranda did not prohibit police from asking questions in case of an emergency, only the introduction of evidence obtained from that emergency questioning. The dissent reasoned that if public safety was an overriding concern, then police should just ask the questions necessary to protect the public, even at the cost of evidence.
With Judgment rendered the case returned to the trial court. At this point Mr. Quarles made a plea agreement and was sentenced to probation. After his point, Mr. Quarles stayed out of trouble and has since disappeared into the sands of time. However, the legacy of New York v Quarles remains felt today. The test created to determine if questioning in violation of Miranda still stands today as “whether or not the suspect answered the questions posed by law enforcement that were ‘reasonably promoted by a concern for the public safety’ and, as later cases would suggest, the danger is imminent.”. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can protect your rights against self-incrimination from misapplication of this narrow exception to the protections enshrined in Miranda.
Written by Hunter White
 New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 104 S. Ct. 2626 (1984)
 Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602 (1966)