New York v. Quarles Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(American Decades Primary Sources: 1980-1989)

The Miranda rights are a basic set of simple statements that are read to accused persons prior to questioning. CONNECTICUT STATE POLICE. The Miranda rights are a basic set of simple statements that are read to accused persons prior to questioning. CONNECTICUT STATE POLICE. Published by Gale Cengage CONNECTICUT STATE POLICE.
A police officer reads Miranda rights to a handcuffed suspect. © KIM KULISH/CORBIS SABA. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. A police officer reads Miranda rights to a handcuffed suspect.. © KIM KULISH/CORBIS SABA. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION Published by Gale Cengage © KIM KULISH/CORBIS SABA. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION

Supreme Court decision

By: William H. Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Thurgood Marshall

Date: June 12, 1984

Source: Rehnquist, William H., Sandra Day O'Connor, and Thurgood Marshall. New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649. Available online at; website home page: (accessed April 18, 2003).

About the Authors: William Rehnquist (1924–) attended Stanford for his law degrees. In 1971, he was named to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1986, he was appointed chief justice. He is generally regarded as a conservative.

Sandra Day O'Connor (1930–) attended Stanford Law School, graduating third in her class. Because of gender bias, no firm would hire her, so she worked as a deputy county attorney. In 1981, she was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) served as counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and in 1967 became the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He served on the Court until 1991.


The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was added to the Constitution in 1791. The meaning of these amendments has not always been clear, especially with regard to the criminal justice system. Until the 1960s, different criminal procedures and constitutional protections applied at the state level and the federal level, creating fifty-one different sets of constitutional protections. Also, the police often had incentives for encouraging people not to pursue their rights, especially the right to remain silent or to contact an attorney. It was also unclear under the Constitution whether accused persons were supposed to be informed of their rights.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, began increasing the constitutional protections for criminal defendants, and applying those protections in either state or federal courts. The Warren Court held that the right to counsel was fundamental. It applied the right against self-incrimination, which had existed for decades in federal court, to state court matters. It also held that a confession obtained when a defendant was not able to consult a lawyer and was not informed of the right to remain silent, was inadmissible in state courts. Finally, in 1966, in Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that a defendant must be informed of the right to remain silent, to have a counsel present during questioning, and statements obtained without these warnings were not admissible in criminal court.

This decision caused a firestorm of controversy, even though many studies indicated that it had only a minimal effect on the actual practice of police work. Many politicians, including Richard Nixon, ran for office denouncing the Miranda decision. In the 1970s, the Burger Court narrowed the Miranda ruling, creating exceptions to it. In 1984, the Supreme Court considered the Miranda warning again in New York v. Quarles, a case involving a defendant, who before being given his Miranda warning, had admitted the location in a supermarket where he had tossed a gun after being chased by police.


The Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, upheld the use of the gun in court to obtain a conviction. The majority, led by Chief Justice Rehnquist, held that the issue of public safety allowed for the question to be asked and held that public safety was more important than the defendant's rights, and thus outweighed them. Justice O'Connor would have allowed the use of the gun but not allowed a statement made by the defendant at the same time. Justice Marshall's dissent pointed out that the highest court of New York had found that there was no issue of public safety involved but only the desire of the police officer to obtain a conviction.

Since Quarles, the Supreme Court has generally narrowed the protections of Miranda. The Court has ruled that trickery and the deliberate withholding of information from a defendant were permitted. The Miranda warning is not required in brief traffic stops, and the Court allowed a confession that was obtained after a Miranda warning, but followed a previous confession obtained without that warning. Thus, the protections of Miranda have been somewhat limited. The Supreme Court did, though, disallow a confession that had been obtained after the defendant had asked for counsel but before that counsel had been provided.

Primary Source: New York v. Quarles [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: Chief Justice Rehnquist opens by holding that the Miranda requirements do not apply to this case, because there was an issue of "public safety," creating an exception to Miranda. Justice O'Connor dissents in part, arguing that the statements gained without Miranda are inadmissible, but that the gun found before the Miranda warning was given was admissible. Justice Marshall dissents, arguing that the majority opinion destroys the clarity of the Miranda requirement, which was never about public safety but about coerced confessions.

Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.…

We conclude that under the circumstances involved in this case, overriding considerations of public safety justify the officer's failure to provide Miranda warnings before he asked questions devoted to locating the abandoned weapon.

…The Fifth Amendment guarantees that "[n]o person …shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." In Miranda this Court for the first time extended the Fifth Amendment privilege against compulsory self-incrimination to individuals subjected to custodial interrogation by the police.… The Fifth Amendment itself does not prohibit all incriminating admissions; "[a]bsent some officially coerced self-accusation, the Fifth Amendment privilege is not violated by even the most damning admissions.… The Miranda Court, however, presumed that interrogation in certain custodial circumstances is inherently coercive and held

that statements made under those circumstances are inadmissible unless the suspect is specifically informed of his Miranda rights and freely decides to forgo those rights. The prophylactic Miranda warnings therefore are "not themselves rights protected by the Constitution but [are] instead measures to insure that the right against compulsory self-incrimination [is] protected." …Requiring Miranda warnings before custodial interrogation provides "practical reinforcement" for the Fifth Amendment right.…

In this case we have before us no claim that respondent's statements were actually compelled by police conduct which overcame his will to resist.… Thus the only issue before us is whether Officer Kraft was justified in failing to make available to respondent the procedural safeguards associated with the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination since Miranda.

The New York Court of Appeals was undoubtedly correct in deciding that the facts of this case come within the ambit of the Mirandadecision as we have subsequently interpreted it. We agree that respondent was in police custody.… As the New York Court of Appeals observed, there was nothing to suggest that any of the officers were any longer concerned for their own physical safety.… The New York Court of Appeals' majority declined to express an opinion as to whether there might be an exception to the Miranda rule if the police had been acting to protect the public, because the lower courts in New York had made no factual determination that the police had acted with that motive.…

We hold that on these facts there is a "public safety" exception to the requirement that Miranda warnings be given before a suspect's answers may be admitted into evidence, and that the availability of that exception does not depend upon the motivation of the individual officers involved. In a kaleidoscopic situation such as the one confronting these officers, where spontaneity rather than adherence to a police manual is necessarily the order of the day, the application of the exception which we recognize today should not be made to depend on post hoc findings at a suppression hearing concerning the subjective motivation of the arresting officer. Undoubtedly most police officers, if placed in Officer Kraft's position, would act out of a host of different,

instinctive, and largely unverifiable motives—their own safety, the safety of others, and perhaps as well the desire to obtain incriminating evidence from the suspect.

Whatever the motivation of individual officers in such a situation, we do not believe that the doctrinal underpinnings of Miranda require that it be applied in all its rigor to a situation in which police officers ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety. The Miranda decision was based in large part on this Court's view that the warnings which it required police to give to suspects in custody would reduce the likelihood that the suspects would fall victim to constitutionally impermissible practices of police interrogation in the presumptively coercive environment of the station house.… The dissenters warned that the require ment of Miranda warnings would have the effect of decreasing the number of suspects who respond to police questioning.… The Miranda majority, how ever, apparently felt that whatever the cost to society in terms of fewer convictions of guilty suspects, that cost would simply have to be borne in the interest of enlarged protection for the Fifth Amendment privilege.

The police in this case, in the very act of apprehending a suspect, were confronted with the immediate necessity of ascertaining the whereabouts of a gun which they had every reason to believe the suspect had just removed from his empty holster and discarded in the supermarket. So long as the gun was concealed somewhere in the supermarket, with its actual whereabouts unknown, it obviously posed more than one danger to the public safety: an accomplice might make use of it, a customer or employee might later come upon it.

In such a situation, if the police are required to recite the familiar Miranda warnings before asking the whereabouts of the gun, suspects in Quarles' position might well be deterred from responding. Procedural safeguards which deter a suspect from responding were deemed acceptable in Miranda in order to protect the Fifth Amendment privilege; when the primary social cost of those added protections is the possibility of fewer convictions, the Miranda majority was willing to bear that cost. Here, had Miranda warnings deterred Quarles from responding to Officer Kraft's question about the whereabouts of the gun, the cost would have been something more than merely the failure to obtain evidence useful in convicting Quarles. Officer Kraft needed an answer to his question not simply to make his case against Quarles but to insure that further danger to the public did not result from the concealment of the gun in a public area.

We conclude that the need for answers to questions in a situation posing a threat to the public safety outweighs the need for the prophylactic rule protecting the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination. We decline to place officers such as Officer Kraft in the untenable position of having to consider, often in a matter of seconds, whether it best serves society for them to ask the necessary questions without the Miranda warnings and render whatever probative evidence they uncover inadmissible, or for them to give the warnings in order to preserve the admissibility of evidence they might uncover but possibly damage or destroy their ability to obtain that evidence and neutralize the volatile situation confronting them.

In recognizing a narrow exception to the Miranda rule in this case, we acknowledge that to some degree we lessen the desirable clarity of that rule. At least in part in order to preserve its clarity, we have over the years refused to sanction attempts to expand our Miranda holding.… As we have in other contexts, we recognize here the importance of a workable rule "to guide police officers, who have only limited time and expertise to reflect on and balance the social and individual interests involved in the specific circumstances they confront." …But as we have pointed out, we believe that the exception which we recognize today lessens the necessity of that on-the-scene balancing process. The exception will not be difficult for police officers to apply because in each case it will be circumscribed by the exigency which justifies it. We think police officers can and will distinguish almost instinctively between questions necessary to secure their own safety or the safety of the public and questions designed solely to elicit testimonial evidence from a suspect.

The facts of this case clearly demonstrate that distinction and an officer's ability to recognize it. Officer Kraft asked only the question necessary to locate the missing gun before advising respondent of his rights. It was only after securing the loaded revolver and giving the warnings that he continued with investigatory questions about the ownership and place of purchase of the gun. The exception which we recognize today, far from complicating the thought processes and the on-the-scene judgments of police officers, will simply free them to follow their legitimate instincts when confronting situations presenting a danger to the public safety.…

Justice O'Connor, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

In Miranda v. Arizona, …the Court held unconstitutional, because inherently compelled, the admission of statements derived from in-custody questioning not preceded by an explanation of the privilege against self-incrimination and the consequences of forgoing it. Today, the Court concludes that overriding considerations of public safety justify the admission of evidence—oral statements and a gun—secured without the benefit of such warnings.… In so holding, the Court acknowledges that it is departing from prior precedent, …and that it is "lessen[ing] the desirable clarity of [the Miranda] rule," …Were the Court writing from a clean slate, I could agree with its holding. But Miranda is now the law and, in my view, the Court has not provided sufficient justification for departing from it or for blurring its now clear strictures. Accordingly, I would require suppression of the initial statement taken from respondent in this case. On the other hand, nothing in Miranda or the privilege itself requires exclusion of nontestimonial evidence derived from informal custodial interrogation, and I therefore agree with the Court that admission of the gun in evidence is proper.…

Justice Marshall, with whom Justice Brennan and Justice Stevens join, dissenting.…

The majority's treatment of the legal issues presented in this case is no less troubling than its abuse of the facts. Before today's opinion, the Court had twice concluded that, under Miranda v. Arizona, …police officers conducting custodial interrogations must advise suspects of their rights before any questions concerning the whereabouts of incriminating weapons can be asked.… Now the majority departs from these cases and rules that police may withhold Miranda warnings whenever custodial interrogations concern matters of public safety.…

Before today's opinion, the procedures established in Miranda v. Arizona had "the virtue of informing police and prosecutors with specificity as to what they may do in conducting custodial interrogation, and of informing courts under what circumstances statements obtained during such interrogation are not admissible." …In a chimerical quest for public safety, the majority has abandoned the rule that brought 18 years of doctrinal tranquility to the field of custodial interrogations. As the majority candidly concedes, a public-safety exception destroys forever the clarity of Miranda for both law enforcement officers and members of the judiciary. The Court's candor cannot mask what a serious loss the administration of justice has incurred.

This case is illustrative of the chaos the "public-safety" exception will unleash. The circumstances of Quarles' arrest have never been in dispute. After the benefit of briefing and oral argument, the New York Court of Appeals, as previously noted, concluded that there was "no evidence in the record before us that there were exigent circumstances posing a risk to the public safety." …Upon reviewing the same facts and hearing the same arguments, a majority of this Court has come to precisely the opposite conclusion: "So long as the gun was concealed somewhere in the supermarket, with its actual whereabouts unknown, it obviously posed more than one danger to the public safety.…"

If after plenary review two appellate courts so fundamentally differ over the threat to public safety presented by the simple and uncontested facts of this case, one must seriously question how law enforcement officers will respond to the majority's new rule in the confusion and haste of the real world. As The Chief Justice wrote in a similar context: "Few, if any, police officers are competent to make the kind of evaluation seemingly contemplated.…" …Not only will police officers have to decide whether the objective facts of an arrest justify an unconsented custodial interrogation, they will also have to remember to interrupt the interrogation and read the suspect his Miranda warnings once the focus of the inquiry shifts from protecting the public's safety to ascertaining the suspect's guilt. Disagreements of the scope of the "public-safety" exception and mistakes in its application are inevitable.

The end result, as Justice O'Connor predicts, will be "a finespun new doctrine on public safety exigencies incident to custodial interrogation, complete with the hair-splitting distinctions that currently plague our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence." …In the meantime, the courts will have to dedicate themselves to spinning this new web of doctrines, and the country's law enforcement agencies will have to suffer patiently through the frustrations of another period of constitutional uncertainty.…

Whether society would be better off if the police warned suspects of their rights before beginning an interrogation or whether the advantages of giving such warnings would outweigh their costs did not inform the Miranda decision. On the contrary, the Miranda Court was concerned with the proscriptions of the Fifth Amendment, and, in particular, whether the Self-Incrimination Clause permits the government to prosecute individuals based on statements made in the course of custodial interrogations.…

In fashioning its "public-safety" exception to Miranda, the majority makes no attempt to deal with the constitutional presumption established by that case. The majority does not argue that police questioning about issues of public safety is any less coercive than custodial interrogations into other matters. The majority's only contention is that police officers could more easily protect the public if Mirandadid not apply to custodial interrogations concerning the public's safety. But Miranda was not a decision about public safety; it was a decision about coerced confessions. Without establishing that interrogations concerning the public's safety are less likely to be coercive than other interrogations, the majority cannot endorse the "public-safety" exception and remain faithful to the logic of Miranda v. Arizona.

Further Resources


Davis, Sue Justice. Rehnquist and the Constitution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Irons, Peter H. Brennan vs. Rehnquist: The Battle for the Constitution. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Leo, Richard A., and George C. Thomas. The Miranda Debate: Law, Justice, and Policing. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Tushnet, Mark V. Making Constitutional Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1961–1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Van Sickel, Robert W. Not a Particularly Different Voice: The Jurisprudence of Sandra Day O'Connor. New York: P. Lang, 1998.

White, Welsh S. Miranda's Waning Protections: Police Interrogation Practices after Dickerson. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 2001.


"Beyond Miranda." Available online at (accessed February 13, 2003).


Butler, Rex L. Knowing and Protecting Your Rights: Miranda Was Never Enough. Rex Attorneys. Videocassette. 2001.