For Public Safety's Sake: What Are Suspects' Rights?

A Justice Department official said the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was not read his Miranda rights before being taken into custody because of a public safety exception. Counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston speaks with host Jacki Lyden about the history of the public safety exception and how it will be used in this case.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

With the manhunt now over, officials are thinking about the next steps: interrogation and prosecution. And NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is here with the latest on that. Dina, thanks for coming in.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: You're welcome.

LYDEN: Dina, so the Department of Justice has announced that they aren't going to be reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his rights right away. Can you tell us more about that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: The police can interrogate a suspect without reading him his Miranda rights if they determine that he could have information that's of concern for public safety. The public safety exception grew out of a 1984 Supreme Court case called New York versus Quarles. And it basically carved out this public safety exception for a man suspected of rape. The victim had told the police that her rapist had a gun. But when the suspect in the case was arrested, he was wearing an empty holster. So the police asked him where was his gun, and they did that before they read him his rights.

The exception is permitted, the high court said, because the gun posts an imminent threat. The interpretation of the public safety exception was broadened by the Department of Justice a couple of years ago basically to account for terrorism.

Now, not only do investigators have some period of time to make sure there aren't other accomplices or other plots or unfolding attacks, the Justice Department said that even if all the relevant public safety questions have been answered, there may be still a need to collect intelligence so they can continue to question. And the people who determine this - and that's why it's important - is that the FBI in consultation with DOJ decide if this is the case.

LYDEN: So if the Boston Marathon case - it might be that investigators are trying to find out if other terrorist groups are targeting the U.S. or whether some group sent the Tsarnaev brothers in to attack the U.S.?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. They could use the exception for that. Exactly.

LYDEN: So if a public safety exception is invoked - and as you said, this goes all the way back to 1984, although it was enhanced more recently - can he still get a lawyer?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we understand that Dzhokhar is still in serious condition for his gunshot wounds. We know that the public defender - federal public defender in Boston has said he'll have a public defender. But assuming he's sitting up, he can at any point say, I won't talk to you without a lawyer. The question of reading his rights is not the same as whether or not he actually has those rights. He has the right to the assistance of counsel just like any of us does.

LYDEN: So why not simply Mirandize him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the concern is that he'll actually exercise his right to remain silent. It happened in the Abdul Muttalib case in which he just decided not to talk to investigators anymore.

LYDEN: In this case, well, everything they would get from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, would it all be admissible in court?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It depends how long they go without actually Mirandizing him and reading him his rights. It depends on whether in good faith, they believe there are bombs and accomplices out there, and whether they believe there are other people who sent the two brothers here to attack the U.S. So it would be admissible but only for a period of time.

With the underwear bomber in 2009, a young man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the FBI questioned him for 50 minutes to find out if there was another imminent attack and then they read him his rights, and he eventually pled guilty. In the Boston case, admissibility isn't the sort of primary concern because there are quite a number of eyewitnesses that they could use in court.

LYDEN: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thank you again.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you.

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