Public Safety Exception to Miranda Warning in Florida – State v. Maloney

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides protection against compelled self-incrimination.  Police are required to use certain procedural safeguards to secure this protection, including warning individuals involved in a custodial interrogation that they have the right to remain silent and that any statement made can be used against them.  A failure to provide this warning, called the Miranda warning, prior to custodial interrogation can result in suppression of the statements made during the interrogation, unless there is an applicable exception.  The Fifth District recently considered the application of the public safety exception to Miranda in State v. Maloney.

This case arose from a shootout between two rival motorcycle gangs in a VFW parking lot.  The first police officer to arrive on the scene saw several people in the parking lot, some who were seriously injured and two who were dead.  He requested assistance from all available officers and deputies.  The dispatch request indicated there was ongoing shooting. To secure the scene, police handcuffed between 30 and 40 people and had them lie on the ground. They roped off the parking lot and controlled access to the scene.

The defendant was among those who were handcuffed.  He was patted down and searched.  Another officer seized a knife and a .22 caliber pistol from him and placed them near the defendant so that they could be collected and inventoried later.

The officers testified that the people who were being detained were placed not under arrest but under investigative detention for the safety of the public and the officers.  The defendant was cooperative, and the officer testified there was no evidence that he was a suspect at the time.

A sergeant collected the weapons to keep them from being in the open.  He then had the detainees identify their property so that it could be bagged.  As part of this process, he took the handcuffed defendant to the area where the seized property had been placed and asked him to identify his property.  The defendant identified the pistol and the knife as his.  The sergeant saw that the defendant was wearing a holster that was too large for the .22.  The sergeant then asked the defendant if he had another weapon.  The defendant said he had a .380 caliber pistol and gestured to the area where he dropped it.  The sergeant testified that he did not place the defendant under arrest and therefore did not provide a Miranda warning.  He further testified that he did not know at that time if the defendant was a suspect or a victim.

The defendant was held as an investigative detainee for about 12 hours.  He was handcuffed the whole time, except brief periods to allow him to drink water or receive a gunshot residue test.  Most of the other detainees were released as the investigation progressed during the day.  The defendant and three other people were subsequently arrested and charged.  The police read the defendant his Miranda rights at approximately 10 p.m.

The defendant moved to suppress his statements about owning the .22 and the knife.  The defendant argued that he made the statements in response to custodial interrogation, but he had not been told of his Miranda rights.  The court suppressed the statements.  The State moved for reconsideration, arguing that the public safety exception to the requirement of giving Miranda warnings applied.  The trial court denied the motion, finding that “the exigency had largely dissipated” at the time of the statements.  Law enforcement had been on the scene for about 30 minutes and had already “secured, searched, and disarmed” the people on the scene.  Since the scene and the people present had been secured, the court did not find sufficient exigency to justify the questioning without a Miranda warning.  The trial court specifically found the question about the holster was “solely to elicit testimonial evidence…”

The State appealed, arguing that the defendant was not in custody at the time of the sergeant’s questioning and that the questions were intended to get answers to find the gun and protect the public and officers.

Miranda warnings are required before police engage in custodial interrogation.  Thus, the court must determine if the defendant was in custody at the time of the questioning.  In this case, despite the State’s argument to the contrary, the appeals court found that the defendant was in custody at the time of the sergeant’s questions.  The defendant was handcuffed at the time of the questioning.  He was searched before and during it, and some of his property had already been seized.  Furthermore, he had not been told he could leave.  The appeals court found that based on the circumstances, the defendant was in custody, so the Miranda warning was required unless the public safety exception applied.

The public safety exception applies only when there is an imminent threat, as considered from the perspective of a reasonable person in the officer’s position at the time. The appeals court found that the number of people being detained posed an imminent threat to the officers and the public.  The appeals court noted that the weapon could have been accessible to the defendant, another detainee, or the public, including children.  Citing case law, the appeals court stated that the danger of a missing gun in a public place does not lessen with time.  Thus, the danger was present at the time of questioning.  The appeals court reversed the part of the trial court’s order that suppressed the evidence regarding the defendant’s statements to the sergeant and remanded to the trial court.

Interestingly, the appeals court did not address the trial court’s findings that the scene and the people present had been secured at the time of the questioning.

An experienced Florida criminal defense attorney can protect your rights and fight to keep improperly obtained evidence from being admitted at trial.  If you are facing criminal charges in Florida, call Anidjar & Levine at (800) 747-3733, or submit an online contact form.

Related Blog Posts:

Proximity to Drugs Is Insufficient Evidence for a Florida Possession Conviction – Session v. State

The Hearsay Rule and Corpus Delicti in Florida Criminal Cases – J.B. v. State

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