Marathon Bombing: What is a Public Safety Exception?

 Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

When a suspect has been arrested, they are informed they have the right to silence and an attorney under the constitution—these are the Miranda rights.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said Friday that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not read his Miranda rights when taken into custody because of a public safety exception in cases of national security and acts of terrorism, but he has since had the Miranda rights read. 

At Tsarnaev’s bedside hearing, a federal magistrate read him the Miranda rights on Monday. 

See the full transcript of the bedside hearing on the New York Times website (the reading of Miranda rights begins on Page 4).

The exception stems from a 1984 case, New York V. Quarles, in which police were apprehending a rape suspect. He was wearing an empty shoulder holster, which police believed meant there was a gun nearby. The arresting officer asked if there was a gun nearby, and the suspect nodded in the direction of the gun and answered. The question was later ruled admissable by the Supreme Court, according to the FBI.

From a 2011 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin:

When police officers are confronted by a concern for public safety, Miranda warnings need not be provided prior to asking questions directed at neutralizing an imminent threat, and voluntary statements made in response to such narrowly tailored questions can be admitted at trial. Once the questions turn from those designed to resolve the concern for safety to questions designed solely to elicit incriminating statements, the questioning falls outside the scope of the exception and within the traditional rules of Miranda.

The Public Safety Exception allows for limited questioning before Miranda rights and has been used in a couple of other recent notable cases, including the so-called “underwear bomber” in 2009 and the Times Square bomber in 2010, according to the Huffington Post.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed concern over Tsarnaev’s arrest without a reading of the Miranda rights. According to the AP, via Huffington Post, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said the Public Safety Exception cannot apply when there is no continued threat to public safety and is “not an open-ended exception” to the Miranda rule.

South End Patch