“Do questions that would objectively aid a search for a kidnapped or missing person fall within New York v. Quarles’s public safety exception to Miranda?”
After kidnapping a child, Mata’s location was pinpointed from his cell phone. Mata was stopped in his vehicle and the officers, without Mirandizing him, asked him about the child’s location. Mata offered to trade her location in exchange for his release. Although the officers rejected his proposal, Mata led them to the victim, and she was rescued. The trial court suppressed Mata’s statements, ostensibly due to the Miranda violation.
The State appealed, arguing that the “public safety” exception recognized in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984), applied. The court of appeals disagreed, concluding that Quarels is distinguishable. Quarles, it observed, involved an officer asking a suspect about the location of a hidden gun in a store because it could pose a danger to the officers and public. Thus, the court held, “Because the exception is a narrow one, and it has only been used in situations involving the use of guns, we decline to create an exception here that may lessen the clarity of the Miranda rule.”
The State argues that the lower court’s reading of Quarles is too narrow. Quarles did not create a weapons-only exception; what mattered was that the officer’s questions were prompted by a concern for public safety. Quarles recognized that while lost confessions may be an acceptable risk of Miranda warnings, lost opportunities to neutralize a threat to public safety are not. Additionally, applying Miranda when there is no evidence of a weapon but still a physical threat to a person, particularly a kidnapped child, puts officers in the position the Supreme Court was trying to avoid—having officers weigh the prospect of an answer that could save the life of a child against the prospect of damaging the criminal prosecution. Finally, there is a greater exigency here than in Quarles; a kidnapped child could be anywhere, and the magnitude of harm to a child is greater than the more hypothetical public concern in Quarles.