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High Court to Hear Miranda Challenge

Ruling in Oxnard case could reinterpret landmark decision on rights during police questioning. White House backs a change.

November 24, 2002|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

OXNARD — Maybe you don't have a right to remain silent after all.

The Supreme Court in its landmark Miranda opinion ruled that police must respect the rights of people who are held for questioning. Officers must warn them of their right to remain silent, and, equally important, honor their refusal to talk further.

But that widely known rule is about to be reconsidered in the high court in the case of a farm worker here who was shot five times after a brief encounter with police. Legal experts say the case has the potential to reshape the law governing everyday encounters between police and the public.

While the farm worker lay gravely wounded, a police supervisor pressed him to talk, to explain his version of the events. He survived, paralyzed and blinded, and sued the police for, among other things, coercive interrogation.

But Oxnard police assert that the Miranda ruling does not include a "constitutional right to be free of coercive interrogation," but only a right not to have forced confessions used at trial.

Bush administration lawyers have sided with the police in the case. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Dec. 4.

Police can hold people in custody and force them to talk, so long as their incriminating statements are not used to prosecute them, U.S. Solicitor Gen. Theodore B. Olson and Michael Chertoff, the chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, say in their brief to the court.

It "will chill legitimate law enforcement efforts to obtain potentially life-saving information during emergencies," including terrorism alerts, if police and FBI agents can be sued for coercive questioning, they add.

Legal experts on the other side of the case foresee far-reaching effects if the police prevail.

"This will be, in essence, a reversal of Miranda," said University of Texas law professor Susan Klein.

"Officers will be told Miranda is not a constitutional right. If there is no right, and you are not liable, why should you honor the right to silence?" she asked. "I think it means you will see more police using threats and violence to get people to talk. Innocent people will be subjected to very unpleasant experiences."

It was early evening on a November day five years ago when Oliverio Martinez, 29, rode his bicycle down a path and across a vacant lot toward a row of small homes.

Two officers, Andrew Salinas and Maria Pena, had stopped to question a man they suspected, wrongly it turned out, of selling drugs. When they heard a squeaky bike approach in the dark, they called for the rider to stop.

Martinez dismounted and put his hands over his head. In a leather sheath on a waist band, he carried a long knife that he used to cut strawberries.

When the officer patted him down and grabbed for the knife, Martinez tried to run. Salinas tackled him and tried to handcuff him. As they struggled on the ground, the officer called out that the man had a huge knife. Pena moved closer and fired.

One bullet struck Martinez near the left eye and exited behind his right eye. A second hit his spine. Three more shots hit his legs.

When patrol supervisor Sgt. Ben Chavez arrived, a handcuffed Martinez lay bleeding on the ground. Once Martinez was loaded into an ambulance, Chavez climbed in with a tape recorder in hand.

On and off for the next 45 minutes in the ambulance and at the hospital, he repeatedly asked the gravely wounded man to admit he had grabbed the officer's gun and provoked the struggle. In agony, Martinez is heard screaming in pain and saying he is choking and dying.

"OK. You're dying. But tell me why you were fighting with the police?" Chavez asks. "Did you want to kill the police or what?" he continues. One officer had said Martinez tried to grab his gun.

In the emergency room, Chavez continued to press Martinez to tell him what happened.

"Why did you run from the police?" Chavez is heard to say over the sounds of nurses and doctors.

"Did you get his gun? ... Did you to try to shoot the police?"

Martinez in a low voice responds: "I don't know.... I don't know."

Lawyers for Martinez say he panicked when the officer tried to tackle him, but they say he did not grab the officer's gun.

In the emergency room, he is heard asking Chavez several times to leave him alone. "I don't want to say anything anymore."

"No? You don't want to say what happened?" the sergeant continues.

"It's hurting a lot. Please!" Martinez implores, his words trailing off into agonized screams. Undaunted, Chavez resumes. "Well, if you're going to die, tell me what happened."

Silence came only when pain medication took hold, and Martinez faded into unconsciousness.

Martinez survived, although he would not see or walk again. He sued Oxnard police for illegal arrest, the use of excessive force and coercive interrogation in police custody.

Under a post-Civil War law, city and state officials, including police officers, can be sued in federal court if they violate a person's rights under the U.S. Constitution.

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