U.S. Supreme Court Could Make Miranda Warnings Thing of the Past

AP Special Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (AP) – For five years, Oliverio Martinez has been blind and paralyzed as the result of a police shooting. Now he is at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case that could determine whether decades of restraints on police interrogations should be discarded.

The blanket requirement for a Miranda warning to all suspects that they have the right to remain silent could end up in the rubbish bin of legal history if the court concludes police were justified in aggressively questioning the gravely wounded Martinez while he screamed in agony.

“I am dying! … What are you doing to me?” Martinez is heard screaming on a recording of the persistent interrogation by police Sgt. Ben Chavez in Oxnard, a city of 182,000 about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“If you are going to die, tell me what happened,” the officer said. He continued the questioning in an ambulance and an emergency room while Martinez pleaded for treatment. At times, he left the room to allow medical personnel to work, but he returned and continued pressing for answers.

No Miranda warning was given.

A ruling that minimizes defendants’ rights would be useful to the Bush administration, which supports Oxnard’s appeal, in its questioning of terrorism suspects, experts said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a federal judge that the confession was coerced and cannot be used as evidence against Martinez in his excessive-force civil case against the city. It said Chavez should have known that questioning a man who had been shot five times, was crying out for treatment and had been given no Miranda warning was a violation of his constitutional rights.

Oxnard appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Wednesday.

The U.S. Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief along with police organizations and the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation contending that unfettered police questioning is allowable so long as the information obtained from a suspect is not used against that person in court.

Opponents of the government position say a ruling diluting the Miranda protections would be another nail in the coffin of individual rights sacrificed in the interest of rooting out terrorists.

“This is a case to be concerned about,” said Charles Weisselberg, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor. “To see the (U.S.) solicitor general arguing that there’s no right to be free from coercive interrogation is pretty aggressive.”

On Nov. 28, 1997, Martinez, a farm worker, was riding his bicycle through a field where police were questioning a man suspected of selling drugs. The police ordered Martinez to stop. When an officer found a sheathed knife in his waistband, they scuffled and the officer’s partner, perceiving that Martinez was reaching for the officer’s gun, shot him five times, in the eyes, spine and legs.

Chavez eventually got an acknowledgment from Martinez that he did grab for the officer’s gun. But Martinez’s lawyers said that statement was coerced and is inadmissible in the damage case that Martinez filed.

Martinez was never charged with a crime.

The Oxnard appeal argues that the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination applies only at a criminal trial and the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process of law is violated only if the questioning of a suspect is so excessive that it “shocks the conscience” of the community.

Martinez is represented by R. Samuel Paz, a frequent critic of police practices.

“I think it will turn on whether the court is going to stand up and say what it said before,” Paz said, “that the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments protect people, and that we do have rights that extend beyond having a coerced confession admitted into a criminal case.”

Martinez, 34, blind and paraplegic, lives in a one-room trailer in a remote rural area, tended by his father.

“It’s tragic,” said Alan E. Wisotsky, the lawyer for the city of Oxnard, “but you can’t look at it from a philanthropic standpoint. He tried to kill police officers or they thought he was trying to kill them …. Does the tape (of the interrogation) sound bad? Yes, the guy is in agony. But the questioning was to get at the truth.”

The Miranda warning takes its name from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a 1966 case involving the use of a confession in the rape prosecution of Ernesto Miranda.

“A generation of Americans has grown up since 1966 confident that, if brought to the police station for questioning, we have the right to remain silent, that the police will warn us of that right and, above all, that they will respect its exercise,” said a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Martinez by the American Civil Liberties Union and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

“… If petitioners’ theory of the Fifth Amendment is correct, then the public’s confidence has been misplaced for all these decades and is about to be shattered,” it said.