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'Public Safety Exception' Used in Boston Bomb Case Traces Back to Queens

By Murray Weiss | April 24, 2013 6:48am
 The decision to delay reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his rights dates back to a 1980 case in Queens.
The decision to delay reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his rights dates back to a 1980 case in Queens.
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NEW YORK CITY — The "public safety exception" that allowed federal authorities to delay reading Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights originated from a routine gun arrest in Queens more than 30 years ago.

Benjamin Quarles, 21, was arrested on Sept. 11, 1980, after a woman ran up to cops on Francis Lewis Boulevard claiming a gun-toting attacker had raped her. Cops drove her around the neighborhood in a squad car until the woman pointed out her alleged attacker standing in a supermarket checkout line.

When cops entered the supermarket, Quarles bolted, heading for the rear of the store. When officers grabbed and frisked him, they found he had an empty gun holster. An officer handcuffed Quarles and asked him, "Where is the gun?"

Quarles said he had stashed the weapon in a soapbox, where cops found a revolver. Only then was he read his rights and formally arrested.

Miranda is a warning given by police to suspects in custody before they are questioned. It's designed to inform them that anything they say can be used against them in a trial.

That Quarles was asked about the gun before he was read his Miranda rights turned a seemingly insignificant gun collar into a case that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court after two lower courts in New York ruled against the NYPD. 

"You had very honest cops saying, 'I handcuffed him,' asked where the gun was before reading him his Miranda rights," Steven Hyman, the Manhattan lawyer who represented Quarles, explained to DNAinfo.com New York.

Hyman had convinced two lower courts in New York, and had 30 minutes to persuade the Supreme Court in 1984.

But the high court delivered a 5-4 opinion arguing the cops did not have to read Quarles his rights because of the “public safety” need to know where the weapon was.

“They said it was spontaneous and not intended to get evidence but to alleviate the need to find the weapon,” Hyman recalled.

In today’s post-9/11 world, law enforcement now uses the “public safety” exception to interrogate suspects in order to get information to track down other suspects and find possible explosives.

Hyman questioned whether the “public safety” ruling has been stretched beyond its intended limit — in Boston it took three days before Tsarnaev was formally charged by the feds at his hospital bed.

“I think they are abusing it,” Hyman said.  “The whole thrust of Quarles' [case] was spontaneous need for public safety. It was not intended for open-ended interrogation.”

By failing to issue a Miranda warning, evidence investigators obtain from Tsarnaev could be jeopardized if lawyers decided to challenge the public-safety exception. Miranda only applies to self-incrimination.

It does not cover statements he may make about other potential suspects, if they exist, sources said.

As for Quarles, the Queens District Attorney's Office never charged him with the rape, but he pleaded guilty to the weapons charge and was put on probation without any jail time.