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Five constitutional issues raised by the Boston Marathon case

April 22, 2013 by NCC Staff


A week after the Boston Marathon bombings, one suspect is in custody, another is dead, and a nation mourns the victims. Along the way, the intense publicity over the case has generated some debate about constitutional issues.

Exploded_black_backpack1. Miranda warnings

At the forefront is the debate about the living suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and his Fifth Amendment right to receive a Miranda warning before questioning from federal investigators.

Constitution Daily contributor Lyle Denniston put the debate in context with his analysis for us today.

“From all that officials involved in the investigation in Boston have said, it may well be that they have such overwhelming evidence to support prosecution that they have little need to get Tsarnaev to confess and can focus, instead, on finding out what he may know--if anything--about other threats or accomplices,” Denniston says.

Related Story: Constitution Check: Are there limits on questioning a bombing suspect?

The investigators are using something known as the public safety exemption to avoid, at least at the moment, reading Tsarnaev his constitutional rights in the form of a Miranda warning.

Tsarnaev was reportedly conversing with investigators in writing, since his injuries allegedly prevent him from speaking.

The Miranda debate was heated over the weekend, given that Tsarnaev is a naturalized citizen.

2. The death penalty

Another issue that came up almost immediately after Tsarnaev’s capture was if he would be eligible for the death penalty if federal prosecutors decide to seek it in the case.

Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty, but Tsarnaev will be tried in a federal court.

In a statement, the Justice Department said Tsarnaev will be charged with use of a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property resulting in death. The department said the death penalty is one option on the table.

In reality, the Tsarnaev case could be years away from a trial, so the death penalty debate will probably take a back seat as more facts are revealed about the case.

3. Unregistered guns

There were also reports on Monday that Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were using unregistered guns in their fatal assault on an MIT police officer and other law enforcement members.

The brothers reportedly had a stockpile of ammunition and exchanged hundreds of rounds of fire with police officers.

Massachusetts already has one of the strictest sets of gun laws in the country—in fact, the Brady Campaign ranks the state as the fourth-strictest when it comes to gun laws in America.

4. Immigration

The Tsarnaev brothers’ immigration status is crossing over into the debate about immigration currently in Congress.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is arguing the Boston Marathon case will bolster the argument for immigration reform, while Senator Marco Rubio says the incident has no bearing on the immigration debate.

Dzhokhar Tsaraev became a U.S. citizen last year. But Tamerlan Tsaraev’s citizenship, as reported in The New York Times, was delayed when Homeland Security investigators found out he had been interviewed by the FBI in 2011 at the request of the Russian government.

5. Privacy

The issue of privacy has come up in several facets of the investigation. The suspects were identified through federal and local investigators examining extensive video and still-image footage obtained from private security cameras.

Law enforcement also used thermal-imaging technology from a helicopter to see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev inside a boat parked in a driveway.

The issue of using thermal imaging devices has been before the Supreme Court in relation to drug cases, and the court has found that it is a Fourth Amendment violation to look inside a home without a warrant using a thermal-imaging device.

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