The Choices of Miranda

There’s been a fair bit of legal chatter about the decision of law enforcement to not read Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights. What’s lost in most of the discussion is that doing so is a perfectly rational decision for the authorities to make. Why? The reasons are related to one of my favorite topics: why no one should blindly follow the law (or procedure, or “standard operating process”).

The police choosing to not Mirandize a suspect isn’t the same as choosing to disobey an unjust or unconstitutional law, or even the decision to proceed in the face of ambiguous applicability of regulation. It’s more akin to the cost-benefit involved in choosing to run a red light on a bicycle, or to breach a contract. You see, unlike the legal consequence for being caught running a red light (a ticket), there’s not a legal sanction for failing to Mirandize. There’s no independent “Miranda right;” the warning merely serves as a safe harbor allowing the police to use whatever statements the suspect may offer up after the warning has been given.

(for any criminal defense lawyer readers, yes, I am skipping over a lot of criminal law nuance here, but my point has to do with decision-making, not procedure).

Like my running the red light, the authorities here are making a pragmatic choice: give up the ability to use any incriminating statements that Tsarnaev may make against him in exchange for the increased likelihood that he yields information exposing co-conspirators, foreign support, etc. This decision is actually quite an easy one. While the FBI is preserving optionality by claiming that skipping Miranda is justified under the public safety exception (which would permit any statements to be used despite the failure to Mirandize), the much more important point is that there is almost no chance that they need any incriminating statements by Tsarnaev in order to convict him. Absent some truly startling developments, they’ve got all the evidence they need. So why not skip the warning and see what intelligence he offers up?

The rules of police procedure would say that you read the suspect his Miranda rights. And as with most rules (including red lights), that’s a good idea – most of the time. But as this case illustrates, we’re not going to maximize our chances of getting the best outcomes if we don’t critically assess, every time, whether we should follow the rules this time.

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