Law in Contemporary Society

The Quarles Public Safety Exception, its Impact, and Prosecutorial Bias

-- By AlexHeycke - 23 Apr 2024

New York v. Quarles and the Public Safety Exception

In New York v. Quarles, the Supreme Court held that our 5th Amendment Miranda right is subject to a public safety exception: when there is a need to protect the public or police from any immediate danger, pre Miranda statements–and evidence gathered on their basis–are admissible evidence against the accused.

In my first draft, I argued that Quarles reflects a worrisome trend of excessive deference to police discretion in our constitutional law; and that one major cause of such a trend is the overrepresentation of prosecutors relative to public defenders in the federal judiciary. I re-evaluate these assertions in this draft.

Troubling Implications of Quarles

There are several ways in which the Quarles decision might be problematic. First, it potentially weakens the Miranda protection by making it less categorical, suggesting to law enforcement officers that so long as they can come up with some sort of threat, intrusive questioning can incriminate suspects. Indeed, there are some cases in which the Quarles exception is applied in questionable circumstances where the threat seemed far-fetched. For instance, in United States v. Brady, the "objectively reasonable threat" used to justify questioning the defendant about guns in his car's (presumably locked) trunk was that someone in the crowd witnessing the arrest might attempt to grab a weapon from the trunk, despite another officer being present to guard it. Cases like Brady seem to be the outliers, however: Most post-1984 Miranda cases don't even mention the Quarles public safety exception, and the vast majority of cases that do apply Quarles involve quite obvious threats (e.g. asking a suspect where the gun was as he reached towards his waistband or where he discarded his gun shortly after shooting someone. It thus does not appear that Quarles has crucially undermined Miranda.

My second critique was that the decision serves a harmful expressive function by endorsing police’s ability to act on their instincts, noting in dictum that their decision will “free [officers] to follow their legitimate instincts.” It is now well established that the instincts of police officers are often incorrect: they operate on various heuristics that correlate poorly with the presence of an actual threat, such as race. The court effectively downplays the deep problems with policing in America and shifts public opinion away from much needed reform. People outsource their judgments to some extent: if a credible appearing actor makes a certain assessment, we may accept the truth of this assessment. While clear evidence to the contrary might prevent us from following its lead, many people are not presented with such clear evidence of the fact that excessive police discretion might be an issue. The decision of an institution that they believe to be a bastion of detached, objective decisionmaking, such as the Supreme Court, could therefore be enough to sway the opinions of the ambivalent. It is unlikely, however, that the Quarles decision would have such an impact. First, it is limited to the context of police discretion in terms of whether there is a threat once the suspect has been apprehended; this is different from a wholesale endorsement of police officers’ abilities more generally. Second, and more importantly, it seems far-fetched that dictum, buried in page 11 of a 42 page opinion, would make a significant impact on the general public’s perception of policing.

Will A More Balanced Judiciary Undermine Quarles?

One often advanced remedy to this perceived overly pro-police case law is the massive imbalance in the federal judiciary between former prosecutors and public defenders. Until Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the Supreme Court, there had not been a justice with experience as a public defender on the Court since Thurgood Marshall. By comparison, four justices currently on the Supreme court have served as prosecutors at some point in their career. The imbalance is present our entire federal court system, where former prosecutors outnumber former public defenders 5 to 1. Among Trump appointees, this ratio was over 10 to 1. The fact that judges are more likely to come from prosecutorial backgrounds, however, cannot alone lead to the conclusion that they are responsible for any perceived deference to police. For example, Justice Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Quarles, was never a prosecutor. Meanwhile, Justice Sotomayor, who was described as a zealous prosecutor, has a record of opposing the court’s conservative majority in many criminal cases. One might argue that, while there are outliers like Sotomayor and Blackmun, it seems inconceivable, that, in the aggregate, those who have spent a large part of their careers advocating for deference to the police, operating on the assumption that police’s instincts can be trusted, can evaluate such topic impartially. But while some studies suggest that former prosecutors do tend to side with the government more often than those who weren't prosecutors, they fail to adequately account for an important variable that actually can predict judicial behavior in some circumstances: political ideology. After controlling for judges’ ideologies and a host of other potentially relevant variables, there ceases to be a statistically significant relationship between a federal judge’s prosecutorial background and whether they are more likely to side with the government in criminal cases. One could argue that this more recent literature because it fails to distinguish between different types of criminal cases. For example, if there was a strong prosecutorial bias in 5th Amendment cases, but not in other sorts of criminal cases, lumping the former sort of case together with the latter might drown out the bias in the former. But with no such evidence, the conclusion of my first draft was hastily drawn. Because judges who served as prosecutors are only more likely to side with the government in criminal cases insofar as they are more conservative, advocating for a better prosectuor-public defender balance seems to be an ineffective strategy for undermining Quarles and its legacy--if that should even be the goal.

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r12 - 02 Jun 2024 - 03:03:18 - AlexHeycke
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