Supreme Court: "You have the right to be interrogated when wounded"

Revolutionary Worker #1208, July 27, 2003, posted at

On November 28, 1997, Oliverio Martinez was bicycling through the strawberry fields that surround Oxnard, California, a small agricultural city north of Los Angeles. The 29-year-old farmworker was on his way to his girlfriend's house when he rode past a group of Oxnard police. A cop shouted an order to stop, and Martinez stopped.

The police said later that they were acting on a tip that drugs were being sold in the neighborhood. A Latino on a bicycle fit their profile.

The cops forced Martinez to lie face down on the road. They searched him and found his strawberry knife. Whatever the cops did next caused Martinez to try to get away. One cop grabbed him, and then another pumped five shots into his body. A bullet tore into his face, another shattered his spine, and three others hit him in the leg.

When the ambulance arrived, a police sergeant tried to interrogate Martinez, who screamed in pain, went in and out of consciousness, and feared for his life. At the hospital emergency room, as doctors fought to save Martinez's life, the sergeant continued questioning. The police never informed Martinez that he had a right to remain silent, to call a lawyer, and to not be forced to incriminate himself--basic rights arising from the Fifth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Desperate to get treated for his grave injuries, Martinez finally told the police what they wanted to hear: that he'd used drugs that day and had tried to take the cop's gun during the struggle. The questioning finally stopped, and Martinez was treated for his injuries.

The police never charged Oliverio Martinez with any crime. The police bullets left him blind in one eye, and he needs a wheelchair because of the spinal injury.

Martinez filed suit against the Oxnard police and the cops who shot and tortured him. The suit charged the police with violating the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment (which says that anyone living in the U.S. has "equal protection" under the law). Two federal courts ruled that the Oxnard police did violate Martinez's constitutional rights.

But now, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the previous decisions. On May 27, the majority of Supreme Court justices ruled that Oliverio Martinez has no right to sue the police for violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. In effect, the Supreme Court said that the police can interrogate people--and even coerce people to talk--without telling them of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present (commonly known as "Miranda rights"), as long as the statements obtained by the police are not used in court cases against the interrogated persons.

This outrageous ruling is a serious attack on a basic constitutional right--and another sign of the drastic changes in the law since September 11, 2001.


As Oliverio Martinez was being carried to the hospital after being shot by the Oxnard police, the police supervisor, Sergeant Ben Chavez, forced his way onto the ambulance with his tape recorder and tried to question Oliverio Martinez. In the emergency room, Chavez continued his questioning.

The transcript of the interrogation (originally in Spanish) contains this exchange:

Chavez: What happened? Oliverio, tell me what happened.

Martinez: I don't know.

Chavez: I don't know what happened?

Martinez: Ay! I am dying. Ay! What are you doing to me? No! (screams)

Chavez: What happened, sir?

Martinez: My foot hurts...

Chavez: Oliverio. Sir, what happened?

Martinez: I am choking.

Chavez: Tell me what happened.

Martinez: I don't know.

Chavez: "I don't know."

Martinez: My leg hurts....

Chavez: Hey, hey look.

Martinez: I am choking.

Chavez: Can you hear? Look, listen, I am Benjamin Chavez with the police here in Oxnard, look.

Martinez: I am dying, please.

Oxnard police now claim they didn't interfere with the medical treatment of Oliverio Martinez. But the transcript clearly shows that he thought he was being denied medical treatment. At one point, Martinez says, "If you treat me I tell you everything, if not, no." Chavez stopped his cruel questioning only when Martinez said the words the cops wanted to hear.

Martinez was never informed of his Miranda rights. At one point he said, "I am not telling you anything until they treat me," and a moment later, "I don't want to say anything any more." But the interrogator ignored his wish to remain silent.

The police now admit that the "tip" they got about drug dealing was bogus. They also admit that the questioning of Martinez when he was seriously injured was "coercive."

Despite all this, the highest court in this country has ruled that the Oxnard police did not violate Oliverio Martinez's Fifth Amendment rights.

The Fifth Amendment states, "No person...shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...." In the famous 1966 Miranda decision, the Supreme Court specified how the Fifth Amendment applies to questioning by police: "The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him. If the individual indicates, prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease...."

Before Martinez's case reached the Supreme Court, two federal courts had agreed that the cops violated Martinez's constitutional rights. The Ninth Circuit Court in California wrote that "the Fifth Amendment's purpose is to prevent coercive interrogation practices that are destructive of human dignity." They also ruled that "a police officer violates the Fourteenth Amendment when he obtains a confession by coercive conduct, regardless of whether the confession is subsequently used at trial."

But powerful forces were ranged against Oliverio Martinez. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bush administration stepped in. The U.S. solicitor general and the Justice Department argued that the Fifth Amendment was not "a direct limit on the conduct of officers."

In its May 27 decision, the majority of the Supreme Court said that Oliverio Martinez's Fifth Amendment rights were never violated. They argued that since the Amendment contains the words "in any criminal case," and since there was no criminal case against Martinez, there was no violation of his rights under the Fifth Amendment.

In his dissenting opinion against the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued against this narrow interpretation. He wrote that the purpose of the 1966 Miranda decision was to "implement" the Fifth Amendment: "Our cases and our legal tradition establish that the Self-Incrimination Clause is a substantive constraint on the conduct of the government, not merely an evidentiary rule governing the work of the courts."

A majority of the Supreme Court justices ruled that Martinez can still sue the police under the Fourteenth Amendment --because the questioning in the emergency room might be considered so excessive that it "shocks the conscience" of the community. But four justices, including Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice Rehnquist, argued that the forced interrogation of Martinez was not even a question. Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor, points out that for these justices, "even the most extreme forms of police torture in interrogation would not violate the privilege against self-incrimination, until and unless the prosecution attempted to use the statements as evidence at trial."

During oral arguments in the Martinez case last December, Justice Anthony Scalia asked, "Let's assume you think someone is going to blow up the World Trade Center. Could the police beat him with a rubber hose?" In an Internet posting, a legal commentator posed this scenario off of Scalia's remark: "Let's assume someone is declared an enemy combatant by Attorney General John Ashcroft who believes that said individual is `going to blow up the World Trade Center' because God has told [Ashcroft] so, and thus Ashcroft then starts to beat alleged terrorist up with a rubber hose."

Erwin Chemerinsky notes that with the Supreme Court decision in the Martinez case, "The only remaining enforcement mechanism for Miranda is the exclusion of evidence from direct use in a criminal trial.... But if police are willing to forgo this use, knowing they can use the illegally obtained evidence for other purposes, then there is no deterrent to constitutional violations."

In other words, statements and "confessions" obtained by the police in violation of the Fifth Amendment--and even using coercion and torture--can be used as "evidence" in cases against people other than the person who was interrogated.

Police in many localities in California have already abandoned Miranda warnings. A recent California Supreme Court case threw out a murder conviction from Tulare County that was based on a statement obtained by a detective after a suspect had asked to speak to an attorney nine times . The detective said his supervisor told him to ignore requests for a lawyer. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1990s allowed prosecutors to use statements that police obtained in violation of a person's Miranda rights--if that person chose to testify in his/her own case.

Statements obtained in violation of the Constitution can also be used in civil cases. This may have been the reason the Oxnard police continued to question Oliverio Martinez--so that if they were sued in a civil case, they could use his statement to justify the shooting of an unarmed man.


Since September 11, thousands of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants in this country have been interrogated without the presence of attorneys, held in secret detention, beaten and mistreated in custody, and deported. But the heightened repression is not just aimed at Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants. The war on civil liberties and people's rights are part of an extreme agenda of those in power that is bringing ominous and sweeping changes that affect the people in the U.S.

The May 27 Supreme Court decision did not abolish Miranda rights altogether--but it was a big assault on what was supposed to be among the basic constitutional rights in this country. As Erwin Chemerinsky points out, "Constitutional rights have little meaning if they are not enforceable."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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