Wednesday, May 28, 2003
Police Cannot Be Sued for Coercive Questioning, Supreme Court Rules
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A fractured Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a police officer did not violate the rights of a gravely wounded farm worker by interrogating him at the hospital without reading him his Miranda rights.
But Oliverio Martinez may still be allowed to collect damages on grounds that his constitutional due process rights were violated by the 1997 hospital room questioning, the court said in sending the case back to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Martinez was shot five times by police and then subjected to a lengthy interrogation as he awaited medical treatment. He was never told of his rights, and he says a police sergeant kept questioning him even after he said that he did not want to answer.
Martinez, who was never charged with a crime, was left blind and paralyzed. He sued the City of Oxnard and the police sergeant under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, claiming that the coercive interrogation violated his right to be free from self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment, as well as his substantive Fourteenth Amendment due process right.
A 5-4 majority in the case, which resulted in six separate opinions, held that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in denying qualified immunity to the officer on the Fifth Amendment question. There was no Fifth Amendment violation, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, because the suspect’s right not to be a witness against himself is not at issue unless and until the suspect is charged with a crime and his statements are sought to be introduced in evidence.
He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia, and in a separate opinion by David Souter and Stephen Breyer.
“Our holdings in [past] cases demonstrate that, contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s view, mere coercion does not violate the text of the Self-Incrimination Clause absent use of the compelled statements in a criminal case against the witness,” Thomas wrote.
According to the city’s evidence, police officers Maria Pena and Andrew Salinas were conducting a nighttime investigation of suspected drug-dealing activity at a vacant lot in a residential area.
As they were questioning one individual, Martinez approached on a bicycle. When Salinas ordered Martinez off the bicycle and approached him to perform a pat down, Martinez ran.
The officer caught him and a struggle ensued. At one point Martinez pulled a knife which Salinas grabbed and tossed out of reach. Martinez then managed to get hold of the officer’s gun.
At that point, Salinas called out to his partner, “He’s got my gun.” Pena drew her revolver and fired at Martinez, hitting him several times.
A sort time later, paramedics and supervising police sergeant Ben Chavez arrived. While Martinez was receiving initial treatment, Chavez questioned the two officers about the incident, then accompanied Martinez to the hospital in the ambulance. At the hospital, under questioning by Chavez, Martinez admitted that he had been shot while fighting with Salinas and that he had “pulled” the officer’s gun and “pointed” it at him.
After complaining several times about his pain, Martinez told Chavez he would not answer any more questions. An interview transcript shows that Martinez told Chavez “I am choking. I am dying, please” and that the officer replied: “If you are going to die, tell me what happened.”
Lawyers for Martinez, who was blinded and paralyzed after being shot in the eye and spine during a scuffle with an officer, claim he was in excruciating pain and begged the officer to leave him alone.
Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting on the Fifth Amendment issue, compared the interrogation to “an attempt to obtain an involuntary confession from a prisoner by torturous methods.”
Kennedy, Ginsburg Dissent
Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored separate opinions, agreed with Stevens that a Fifth Amendment violation could, in some circumstances, occur without a defendant being charged with a crime.
Souter and Breyer joined those three in concluding that Martinez may be able to sue for violation of due process, while Thomas wrote that success in such a suit still remains unlikely.
Sonia Mercado, one of the attorneys for Martinez, said the court seemed to be saying “You can beat a person and as long as you don’t prosecute them, it’s OK.”
David Oscar Markus, a Miami attorney with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said justices did not totally shut the door on police lawsuits, although they may be harder to win. “The court is still unwilling to say to the police `Go and do whatever you want in order to stop crime,”’ Markus said.
Charles Hobson, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation who filed an amicus brief in support of Oxnard, hailed the ruling.
“This was a critical decision for law enforcement,” Hobson said. “If the Supreme Court had agreed with the plaintiff in this case, officers would be reluctant to ask questions and fewer crimes would be solved.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company