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Public Safety Exception Allows Police Questioning Post-Miranda

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has recently held that where public safety is at stake, the police are permitted to question a defendant in custody even after he has invoked his right to counsel pursuant to the seminal case of Miranda v. Arizona

In State v. Melendez, the appellate court noted it is well-settled law in New Jersey that the police may question an individual in custody without administering the so-called Miranda warnings where "exigent circumstances" exist such that the safety of the public at large is threatened.  These types of cases typically involve weapons.  The public safety exception generally requires the State to demonstrate an objectively reasonable need to protect the public or police from immediate danger involving a weapon, and that the police questioning was related solely to that danger and necessary in order to protect the public.  In Melendez, the Appellate Division held that that there is legally and practically no valid distinction between a pre-Miranda and post-Miranda application of the public safety exception.  Public safety concerns are evident in a case where a defendant in custody requests the presence of counsel, and the police subsequently learn of a threat posed by the defendant's discarding of a weapon in a public place.  In such a situation, the "exigent circumstances," i.e., finding the weapon before someone is hurt or killed, outweigh the need for the police to wait for an attorney to arrive to insure that any waiver of rights was voluntary and informed, according to the ruling of the court.

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