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Supreme Court pares Miranda rights

Authorities can force the unwilling to speak, jurists say in 6-3 ruling.

Bee News Services

(Published Wednesday, May 28, 2003, 8:49 AM)

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court narrowed the historic right against self-incrimination Tuesday, ruling that police and government investigators can force an unwilling person to talk, as long as those admissions are not used to prosecute them.

The 6-3 opinion undercuts the well-known "Miranda warnings," in which officers tell suspects of their right to remain silent. It appears to allow more aggressive police questioning of reluctant witnesses in the hope of obtaining evidence. While a witness's words cannot be used against him in court, evidence can be.

Tuesday's decision also could prove useful to the government in the war on terrorism. The FBI agents who fanned out across the country after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington mostly wanted information, not criminal convictions.

Most immediately, however, the decision throws out part of a lawsuit brought on behalf of a gravely wounded farmworker in Oxnard who was questioned in a hospital emergency room by a police supervisor.

The officers who shot Oliverio Martinez in the face and back can be sued for using excessive force, and possibly for "outrageous conduct" at the hospital, the court said. But the justices ruled that the police supervisor who repeatedly questioned Martinez did not violate his Fifth Amendment rights in doing so.

Civil libertarians worried that the decision signals a retreat from the Miranda rulings of the past. Already, the court has agreed to hear three Miranda cases in the fall, one testing whether police can deliberately violate the right to remain silent.

"When the court handed down Miranda (in 1966), it set out clear lines. When you crossed the line, you violated the constitutional right," said Charles Weisselberg, a University of California, Berkeley law professor. "Now Miranda has become something else -- a rule of evidence, but not a constitutional right. I fear that means it will have less respect from police, judges and the criminal justice system."

Police advocates applauded the ruling.

"This is a good win for the law enforcement community," said Charles L. Hobson of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. "It will be the rare case where an officer is ever held liable for questioning. This shows that Miranda is just about excluding evidence at a trial," he said, not about setting constitutional rules for questioning.

Since December, when the court took up the farm worker's case, the justices have been reconsidering the reach of the Miranda decision and the right against self-incrimination.

The Martinez case examined whether the Constitution protects a person when he is being questioned by police, or only later at a future trial. In past decades, the more liberal Supreme Court had said that suspects and witnesses had a right to remain silent. The 1966 decision in Miranda vs. Arizona held that police officers must tell people of their rights before questioning them.

Similarly, unwillingwitnesses called before investigating committees had the right to "plead the Fifth Amendment" and thereafter refuse to testify.

But in Tuesday's opinion, the court majority said that the Fifth Amendment comes into play only later, when a suspect is tried in court.

Despite a common perception, the Constitution does not bar police from using pressure -- short of torture -- to obtain information from suspects or witnesses, said Justice Clarence Thomas in the court's lead opinion.

"Mere compulsive questioning [does not] violate the Constitution," Thomas said.

He dismissed the view adopted by federal judges in California that "coercive police interrogations, absent the use of the involuntary statements in a criminal case, violates the Fifth Amendment's Self-Incrimination Clause."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor agreed with Thomas. In a separate opinion, Justices David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer agreed that the "core guarantee" of the right against self-incrimination bars the use of compelled confessions in court.

However, in one sentence,they said "outrageous conduct by the police" still might violate a witness's constitutional right to "due process of law."

Three others justices who sided with the Oxnard farm worker -- Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony M. Kennedy -- agreed with Souter and Breyer that police can be sued for "outrageous conduct" during an investigation.

In a long dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the court was abandoning a historic understanding of the Fifth Amendment.

"This is no small matter. To tell our whole legal system that, when conducting a criminal investigation, police officers can use severe compulsion, even torture, with no present violation of the right against compelled self-incrimination can only diminish a celebrated provision in the Bill of Rights," Kennedy wrote. "A Constitution survives over time because the people share a common, historic commitment to certain simple but fundamental principles which preserve their freedom. Today's decision undermines one of those respected precepts."

In a separate dissent that focused on the Martinez case, Stevens called the hospital questioning "the functional equivalent of an attempt to obtain an involuntary confession from a prisoner by torturous methods."

The fractured ruling left lawyers uncertain about what happens next in the Martinez case. His suit will return to a federal judge in Los Angeles, or possibly the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Los Angeles lawyer who sued the city of Oxnard on Martinez's behalf stressed that Tuesday's ruling does not affect the main claim that police violated his rights by shooting him.

"The excessive force claim is ready for trial," Samuel Paz said.

"I'm saddened they used this case to chip away at our Constitution."

Alan Wisotsky, Oxnard's lawyer, said the ruling vindicated the police department's major contention at this stage of the case.

"I said from the beginning there is no right to silence, and I think the court has confirmed that," he said. "The shooting itself was put on the back burner, but that's the real issue now. We think we have a strong case."

The two sides disagree on who was to blame for the shooting that left the then-29-year-old Martinez paralyzed.

(Optional add end)

It was dark on the evening of Nov. 28, 1997, when two Oxnard officers stopped to question a possible drug suspect near a row of small homes. From the opposite direction, Martinez rode up on his squeaky bike, heading toward his girlfriend's house.

When he approached, an officer called for him to halt. He did so, but when the officer grabbed for the field knife on his belt, a scuffle ensued.

"He's got my gun," the first officer called out. A second officer then fired five shots, hitting Martinez in the eyes and in his lower back. He was left blind and was paralyzed below the waist.

Minutes later, Sgt. Ben Chavez, the patrol supervisor, arrived and jumped into the ambulance. He hoped to get a statement from the dying man.

On the tape made in the emergency room, Martinez can be heard screaming in pain.

"What happened?" Chavez asked.

"The police shot me," Martinez replied. "I am dying!"

"Ok, yes, you are dying. But tell me why you are fighting with the police," Chavez continued. The interrogation continued off and on over 45 minutes.

Martinez survived and sued the Oxnard police for illegal arrest, excessive use of force and the coercive interrogation in the emergency room.

A federal judge in Los Angeles cleared the full case to go to trial.

Oxnard's lawyers challenged the claim against Chavez involving the emergency room questioning, but the 9th Circuit agreed Martinez's constitutional rights were violated. "No reasonable officer would believe that an interview of an individual receiving treatment for life-threatening injuries was constitutionally permissible," the appeals court said.

But the Supreme Court took up Oxnard's appeal, and the Bush administration joined the case on the city's side.

In Chavez vs. Martinez, the court reversed the 9th Circuit's ruling allowing the Oxnard police to be held liable for violating the Fifth Amendment.

But the appeals court will probably have to reconsider whether the emergency room questioning is a type of outrageous conduct that is unconstitutional.

The two sides might also settle the suit before it goes to trial.

In other cases Tuesday, the court:

Ruled 6-3 that the nearly 5 million people who work for state governments are protected under a federal law intended to ease work and family conflicts, a surprising departure from the conservative-leaning court's usual stance on states' rights cases.

The 6-3 ruling was all the more notable because its author was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the main architect of the court's shift away from federal control.

The court majority preserved the broad protection Congress mandated in the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees workers will not lose their jobs if they take limited time off to deal withfor family emergencies.

The 1993 law was intended to apply to all but the smallest employers and most specialized jobs, and to guarantee the same rights to both male and female employees.

The rights of private-sector workers were not at issue in Tuesday's case, but supporters of the law said exempting state government workers would seriously undercut the law.

Ordered Florida courts to reconsider the sentence of a burglar who was sent to prison for life because he had a pocketknife in his trousers when he broke into a closed steakhouse.

Ruled that employer-sponsored compensation plans for disabled workers do not have to defer to the opinion of a worker's doctor when deciding whether the worker is eligible for benefits.

Said it will decide whether the U.S. Postal Service can be sued for antitrust violations over the way it handled contracts for mail sacks. A company claims the Postal Service is trying to create a monopoly in the mail sack business.

Agreed to clarify when air carriers can be blamed for passenger illnesses or deaths, using a case involving the death of an asthmatic passenger who was seated near the smoking section on an international flight.

Refused to consider whether some groups have a constitutional right to exclude women. Justices rejected an appeal from the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which was ordered by a Washington state court to open its membership in that state to women.

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Ordered Florida courts to reconsider the sentence of a burglar who was sent to prison for life because he had a pocketknife in his trousers when he broke into a closed steakhouse.

puulease..... a pocket knife in his pocket? What'd they do give him the death sentence because of a "lethal Weapon"? He broke into a closed steakhouse. (Granted he should not of broke in, but please, life for that is ridiculous when murderers and rapists sometimes get off with minimal time.)

So every time I go around with a pen or pencil in my pocket, I'm carrying a dangerous weapon?

I freely admit to accidently stabbing a kid (in the arm) in my 6th grade english class with a pencil once when I turned around sharply with a pencil in hand... if he hadn't been messing with the back of my head, I wouldn't of turned around.

Why not give every criminal life because they could use their shoelaces to strangle someone......

And the main part of the article could be looked at as opening a can of worms.....a big can.

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Much as this Supreme Court decision is depressing (it will almost certainly lead to abuses by police), I can't find any Constitutional grounds to oppose it. The Supremes were right.

Here's the relevant text from the Fifth Amendment:

No person ... shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself ...

That's it. It's a rules-of-evidence protection.

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But, when the cops are getting information from a suspect, the suspect is testifying against himself. Just because he's not in a trial yet doesn't mean he's not testifying.

However, to be honest, we've just about gotten rid of the fifth anyway, by finding loopholes around it.

Ex: If the gov't thinks you're a drug dealer, they won't charge you with being a drug dealer right away, since that would allow you to use your (allegedly drug-based) money to hire a lawyer. Instead, they'll sieze all your assets, first. You have the option of trying to get your money (and house, and car) back, but: a) Since you're the plaintiff, you don't get a court-appointed lawyar. (And, you can't pay cash for one, since they've siezed all of it.) And B) since this is now a civil case, then they now can force you to testify where you got all the money (and use that testimony in the criminal trial, later).

And the restriction that they can't use forced testimony in your trial really doesn't help much, since the gov't's also said that they don't need a trial to keep you locked up forever.

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What this abrogates is the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine, which holds - or held - that police are not entitled to use as evidence (or as the basis for a warrant) any information that is obtained in violation of the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

For example, if I'm arrested and the police illegally interrogate me after I've demanded a lawyer, and then are pointed to a secret panel in my car that contains drugs, under the old rule those drugs would not be admissible because they were the "fruit" of an illegal confession. Under the new rule, while my statement that "There are drugs in the panel of my car" is still not admissible, the drugs would be.

What's going to be fascinating is the first time that a police officer uses force to coerce a confession out of a suspect that then turns up evidence of a crime. I'm sure they can set limits there too (what level of coercion is appropriate or too much?) but as is typical with constitutional law, one case seems to beget many others.

And ASF, since when did the Bill of Rights have anything to do with a Supreme Court decision on the 5th Amendment? ;) :laugh:

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Forget about the constitution. It was given only as a framework.

The important thing here is what is right. It is not right for the police to have the power to get a confession by any means available. That would make the police like the inquistion. They could make an innocent man say he was guilty.

As I understand it the guy in the story was being treated for a gunshot wound and the police supervisor was questioning him, asking him why he fought the police. That is not right.

If this happened during McCarthy's Red Scare, could those people plead the fifth?

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Hokie, I used my terms carlessly. I should have said "admission" instead of "confession". The difference is subtle but important. An admission gives the police some information that is adverse to your legal interest, e.g. evidence suggestive of a crime; a confession cops outright to the crime.

The latter is still not usable under this new rule; the former would be insofar as evidence was discovered due to the admission.

That's why the 5th Amendment is still intact, but the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine, which the Supreme Court created to bolster the 5th Amendment is not.

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If the constitution says that a man, after being shot fives times, can be questioned for 45 minutes, while fighting for his life, is okay, then the constitution is broken and should be fixed.

Please, someone tell me I am reading this wrong. Tell me Justice Thomas didn't say that the police could use anything short of torture to get information. Is harrassment okay?

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