The Constitution Applies to All Americans, No Matter What They Are Accused Of

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Blog of Rights / ACLU

The Constitution Applies to All Americans, No Matter What They Are Accused Of

Our country has been shaken by the events coming out of Boston in the past week. First, of course, there was the tragedy and loss of life and injuries from the Marathon bombing, and the fear of not knowing what would happen next. Then the alleged perpetrators were found, and we now face a debate about whether the surviving suspect, a naturalized American citizen, will be read his Miranda rights or afforded the full protections guaranteed by the Constitution.

Like every American, I was sickened and saddened by the death and carnage of the bomb blasts. I was particularly heartsick for the family of the 8-year-old boy, who would never see their son graduate from middle school. The terror and panic that set in when law enforcement was on the trail of the suspects was also heart-wrenching. And like everyone else, I was relieved that law enforcement apprehended him alive Friday night.

I sat at my local pizzeria on Friday night talking with guys I didn't know about how it was better that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been captured alive. One man said it meant that we would be able learn more about any other accomplices. Another said that since the younger suspect had not been killed, at least some degree of justice would be served. I went to sleep comforted that at least it seemed the uncertainty would not drag on and that justice could be done.

I woke up the next morning to the news that the FBI was delaying reading him his Miranda rights, while senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham were saying that he should be held by the military as an "enemy combatant" and denied not just Miranda rights, but also a lawyer.

I could hardly believe my ears. Sure, I understood that the Miranda rule had a public safety exception -- that suspects didn't have to be read their rights if there was an imminent threat to public safety. It was always supposed to be a narrow (if troubling) exception to a fundamental right. Law enforcement officials themselves indicated that there was no more imminent threat. The curfew had been lifted. And whatever the suspect's connections to other possible accomplices, the government had ample surveillance powers to track their phones and access their email and Twitter accounts.

The calls by U.S. senators that basic constitutional rights should not apply in this case were truly startling. Every criminal defendant has a right to be brought before a judge and to have access to counsel. Over my Saturday morning coffee, I thought, if we deny basic constitutional rights to an American citizen who commits a crime on American soil, then our democracy is truly harmed. Our courts are more than capable of handling cases like this one. They have successfully handled hundreds of terrorism cases. If we cut corners on this one, we set a dangerous precedent for the next time an American citizen is accused of a terrorist attack. If authorities fail to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights that could only make his subsequent prosecution all the more difficult, as we have seen with the alleged 9/11 masterminds.

The fact that the two bombers were both immigrants also threatens to throw the immigration reform debate off rails. This case should have no impact on America's views of immigrants. But the morning news told me otherwise.

In our democracy -- a nation of immigrants -- the thing that binds us together is not a common language or race or religion, but our commitment to certain inalienable rights. The right to remain silent. The right to confront your accuser in a court of law. The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Self-evident truths. It all began in Boston -- when a group of brave colonists resisted the yoke of a despotic king and sought freedom. Protecting Tsarnaev's constitutional rights is the best tribute we could give to the storied legacy of that great city where our freedoms and rights first took hold.

Anthony D. Romero

Anthony D. Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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