The Emergency Exception to the Miranda Rule

If officers are acting in proper response to a potential emergency, they don't have to read you your rights.

Law enforcement officers must provide the Miranda warning if a suspect is in custody and subject to interrogation. If officers don’t provide the warning in this scenario, the suspect’s statements and any evidence derived from them are usually inadmissible in court.

But there are exceptions to the Miranda requirement, one of which commonly applies if officers are responding to a potential emergency.

(For more on this topic, see our article on the public safety exception to Miranda.)

The Emergency Exception at Work

New York’s highest court found the emergency exception to the Miranda rule applicable to a 2013 murder case. (People v Doll, NY Slip. Op. 06726 (2013).) In the events underlying the court’s opinion, a deputy sheriff responded to a nighttime 911 report of a suspicious person. The deputy saw a man matching the description walking down the road. That man was wearing a hunting outfit. He also wore what appeared to be wet blood stains on his skin and clothing. He dropped a metal object and pulled a wrench out of his pocket as he approached the deputy’s vehicle.

When speaking to the officer, the suspicious man asked for a ride to his nearby van. After the officer agreed and the man got into the rear of the patrol vehicle, the firefighter who made the 911 call arrived; the firefighter told the officer he had earlier seen the man hiding at a garage. The deputy then formally detained the man, frisking and handcuffing him.

At this point, the defendant was in custody—he wasn’t free to leave. In a typical case, an officer would have to provide the Miranda warning at this point, before asking any questions likely to elicit incriminating responses. But since the deputy and other officers who later arrived were ostensibly trying to help someone in immediate danger (the person whose blood the defendant was wearing), the appellate court found the warning unnecessary.

The court held that the officers were authorized to continue questioning the man even after he had requested a lawyer. The man’s statements and the evidence they led to were properly admitted into evidence at his trial, which resulted in a second degree murder conviction.

Elements of the Exception

The New York court observed that the “emergency doctrine” applies when:

  • the police have a reasonable basis to believe that their immediate help is needed because of an emergency involving personal injury or property damage
  • the officers aren’t secretly motivated by the desire to arrest someone and seize evidence, and
  • there is reason to believe that the emergency condition is nearby.

In the case above, the court held that the wet blood on the defendant and his inability to adequately explain it justified the failure to Mirandize. That’s because the officers could have legitimately suspected that someone nearby was seriously injured, needing care. That they didn’t know that a crime had occurred or have an identifiable injured person was irrelevant.

Don’t Rely on Hearing Your Rights

The New York case and a litany of others throughout the country establish a variety of circumstances in which the Miranda requirement doesn’t apply to police questioning. That’s why people shouldn’t rely on police officers to advise them of their rights. In most instances, people who are the subject of investigation should unequivocally state that they request a lawyer and choose to invoke their right to silence. They should then seek the guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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