Friday, October 18, 2013

NY’s High Court: No Need for Miranda During Emergencies

On October 17, the New York Court of Appeals fortified an exception to the Miranda rule. The state’s highest court applied the “emergency doctrine” to the facts of a second degree murder conviction. (People v. Doll, NY Slip Op 06726.)

At around 9:00 p.m. on a February night in 2009, a deputy sheriff received word of a 911 call regarding a suspicious person walking the streets. He responded to the area in question, finding a man matching the 911 description. The man wore a camouflage hunting outfit and a hood. He dropped a metal object and grabbed a wrench from a pocket as he approached the officer’s vehicle. He had what looked like wet blood all over his lower body and hands.

The man identified himself at the deputy’s request, then reported that he was walking to lower his blood pressure. He said that his van was parked nearby and asked the officer for a ride to it; the officer agreed. In what must have been a truly bizarre scene, the blood-covered pedestrian led himself into the rear of the officer’s patrol car.

Before they left, the firefighter who made the 911 call arrived and told the officer he had seen the man hiding in a garage. That straw apparently broke the camel’s back, as the officer then arrested his passenger. He questioned the arrestee, who claimed that he was wearing deer-butchering gear because it was cold out.

The deputy drove the defendant to the van, where there was blood both in and outside. Other officers arrived; they reportedly saw blood on the man’s face and his bloody footprints in the snow. At this point, the suspect asked to speak to his divorce lawyer. The officers ignored his request.

When the officers asked if it was deer or human blood on his clothing, the suspect didn’t answer. He told them he couldn’t answer their questions. The officers then tried contacting people who knew the man to determine whether anyone needed emergency help. They began to look for an injured person where the deputy initially spotted the suspect. 

The officers eventually went to the home of the suspect’s business partner, who was lying dead in the driveway. A lab later determined that the business partner’s blood matched what was on the suspect and his clothes.

Not surprisingly, a jury convicted the defendant of second degree murder. The defense argued unsuccessfully that his statements to officers, and the evidence those statements led to, were inadmissible due to violation of Miranda. (The Miranda rule requires officers to advise suspects of their rights to silence and legal representation when they are in custody and interrogated.)

The Court of Appeals justices unanimously agreed with the trial judge—they found that the officers didn’t violate the Miranda mandate because the questions were designed to respond to a potential emergency, not to incriminate the defendant.

It’s hard to object to the principle that officers can sidestep proper procedure during a viable emergency. And in the case above, the police might deserve the benefit of the doubt. After all, it’s not every day that they encounter camouflage-clad passersby coated in wet blood. But let’s hope that courts stick to true emergencies when applying this exception to the Miranda rule. All we need is another vehicle for law enforcement to brush off the Bill of Rights.