Applying the “public safety” exception to the Miranda requirements

In United States v. Ferguson, 11-3806 (2d Cir. Dec. 6, 2012), the Court held that the “public safety” exception to the Miranda requirements applied when a police officer has reason to believe that a person may have left a firearm in a public place – thus permitting the officer to interrogate that person an hour or more after arrest.

In New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984), the Supreme Court explained that “overriding considerations of public safety [may] justify [an] officer’s failure to provide Miranda warnings before he ask[s] questions devoted to  locating [an] abandoned weapon.” Later, in United States v. Estrada, 430 F.3d 606 (2d Cir. 2005), the Second Circuit looked to three factors in making that determination: (1) whether the questioning related to an objectively reasonable need to protect the police or public from an immediate danger, (2) whether an objected observer would believe the questioning was a subterfuge meant to elicit evidence from a suspect, and (3) that the questions were not routinely asked to arrested suspects but instead showed an intent to protect against a perceived danger.

The officer who interrogated Ferguson had previously heard he possessed a firearm and the 911 call reported that a firearm had been fired. But no weapon was recovered when Ferguson was arrested and the officer’s questions were “rationally related to the objective of securing public safety by locating the gun.” Thus, the Court found, the interrogation was within the scope of Estrada.

While recognizing that the passage of time between an arrest and an interrogation may “diminish the immediacy of threat posed by an unaccounted-for firearm,” the Court ultimately concluded that, in this case, it “did not diminish the officers’ objectively reasonable need to protect the public from the realistic possibility that Ferguson had hidden his gun in public, creating an imminent threat to public safety.”