Divided court rules for police on Miranda
From Bill Mears
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has given law enforcement greater legal leeway in questioning criminal suspects but promises to revisit the issue of protecting the rights of individuals against self-incrimination.
A divided court Tuesday ruled a California police officer did not violate the constitutional rights of a wounded suspect who was questioned without having his Miranda rights read to him. Those rights say in part, "You have the right to remain silent."
But justices also concluded the suspect may be able to collect damages because his due process rights were violated during a hospital room interrogation. That part of the ruling was sent back to a lower federal court for further consideration.
The case could have implications in the federal government's ongoing war against terrorism, in which hundreds of people in the United States have reportedly been detained and questioned without any charges being brought.
But justices never answered a central question in the case: whether law enforcement officials can be held liable if they coerce self-incriminating information, including confessions, out of defendants when those statements are never used in court.
Oliverio Martinez, an Oxnard farm worker, was detained in 1997 by police who were investigating illegal drugs. Authorities claim Martinez resisted arrest, and during an ensuing struggle was shot and seriously wounded by an officer who feared Martinez had a gun.
Another officer, Sgt. Ben Chavez, obtained a taped confession during the ambulance ride, and in the hospital emergency room. Chavez repeatedly pressed Martinez for information, despite the wounded man's protests that he was in pain, and despite hospital staff asking Chavez several times to leave Martinez alone.
No Miranda warnings were given to Martinez, and no charges were ever filed against him. He was blinded and partially paralyzed as a result of the incident.
Chavez claims he pressed Martinez so hard because he feared the suspect would die from his wounds. Martinez later denied the taped confession he gave in which he admitted grabbing an officer's gun. Later courts found Martinez's confession was coerced and that he could sue the police for damages in civil court.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas noted, "There is no evidence that Chavez acted with a purpose to harm Martinez by intentionally interfering with his medical treatment."
He added, "The fact that Martinez did not know his statements [to police] could not be used against him does not change our view that no violation of Fifth Amendment's self-incrimination clause occurred here."
But Thomas warned that does not mean "police torture or other abuse that results in a confession is constitutionally permissible so long as the statements are not used at trial." Thomas said no such abuse occurred in the Martinez case.
Decision could affect U.S. war on terror
In sharp dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the decision "undermines" the constitutional idea protecting self-incrimination, and said it was clear the officer took advantage of Martinez's condition to get a statement.
"To tell our whole legal system that when conducting a criminal investigation police officials can use severe compulsion or 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 said.
Justice John Paul Stevens went further, arguing the interrogation was "the functional equivalent" of using torture to get an involuntary confession from a suspect.
Six different justices issued opinions in the case.
This decision could be used as a precedent in the ongoing legal wrangling over hundreds of mostly Middle Eastern and Muslim men, some still being held in secret by the government. They were rounded up across the country in the days and months following the September 11, 2001, attacks, as the government sought any potential connection to the worldwide terror network, al Qaeda. Many of those jailed were allegedly interrogated without lawyers present, and without being formally accused of any crime.
Civil rights and legal groups have pressed the courts in recent months to block the government from continuing this sort of questioning of those in secret custody.
The Supreme Court Tuesday refused to accept a case involving the Bush administration's decision to hold closed deportation hearings involving hundreds of immigrants, many of them of Arab descent, who were detained shortly after the terror attacks two years ago.
Those detained were labeled "special interest" cases in the government's war on terror. The government had exclusive authority to designate the "special interest" tag and to consequently hold the prisoners in near secrecy while it investigated and processed their cases.
This fall, the Supreme Court will hear three cases looking at the broad application of the Miranda warnings. The original Miranda ruling was handed down by justices in 1966.
The case is Chavez v. Martinez (01-1444).