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SUPREME COURT RULINGS

It's 'Just Wrong,' Says the Plaintiff

Oliverio Martinez is blind and paralyzed, and lives in a cramped trailer. He attributes his problems to his shooting by Oxnard police.

May 28, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Oliverio Martinez hadn't yet heard the news about his case, but that was no surprise.

He lives a world away from the marble chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court. He doesn't have a phone, or even a bathroom. With his father, Oliverio Sr., he resides in a dark, cramped trailer about the size of a suburban walk-in closet, a dilapidated tin box outside Camarillo beside the strawberry fields he had worked for the better part of 20 years.

Martinez, 35, is blind and paralyzed. His prospects shrank dramatically one November night in 1997 when he was shot five times by Oxnard police.

The shooting reverberated up to the nation's highest court. Martinez sued, contending that an officer should have listened to his agonized protests and stopped questioning him as he lay bleeding in the ambulance and the emergency room.

On Tuesday, Martinez learned from a reporter what the Supreme Court had decided: Police may not have violated his constitutional rights when they questioned him without reading him the Miranda warning.

"That's just wrong," Martinez, a Guadalajara native, said in Spanish. "They were the cause of it all."

The high court did not close the door on the possibility of Martinez one day collecting damages. Five justices agreed he may still sue police for use of excessive force and "outrageous conduct" in the hospital interrogation.

Martinez can use whatever settlement he might get.

"I've got nowhere to go," he said. "All I want is a little room."

He and his father pay rent of just $50 a month, he said. But, Martinez said, the property's owner wants him out, weighing the risk of letting a blind man who uses a wheelchair live amid rumbling produce trucks and field workers' cars.

An open plastic water barrel sits on the dirt outside the Aristocrat-brand trailer. To bathe, Martinez dips into the barrel and heats pots of water on an electric grill inside. He draws drinking water from a battered orange cooler. Field bathrooms are an easy walk for his father, but not for Martinez, who uses a bucket that his father then empties.

In pain much of the time, Martinez sometimes can get around by using a walker. One of his eyes is missing and, beneath his sunglasses, he wears a bandage over the socket.

Martinez has slipped through the government safety net of welfare payments and food stamps. He can't obtain such benefits, he said, because he lost the paperwork proving that he is a legal U.S. resident.

Martinez said he spends a lot of time listening to the radio. A psychologist on local Spanish-language radio has helped him through rough emotional patches, but he frequently relives the night disaster befell him, he said.

He was bicycling home after work and took a shortcut down an alley, he said. Unfortunately, he chose a time when two officers were questioning a man they suspected of selling drugs, he said.

"They saw me and assumed I was part of it too," he said.

Patting Martinez down, an officer grabbed the knife Martinez used for working in the strawberry fields. At that point, police said, he tried to snatch the officer's gun. The five shots quickly followed. Martinez's attorneys acknowledged that he panicked during the frisking but that he never made a move for the gun.

"All I wanted to do was work, make a few dollars, and maybe build a house for my mother in Mexico," he said. For years, he said, he had sent money home for his seven siblings.

He had long since fallen out of touch with his daughter, who now is 13. But he said he had hoped to marry and raise a family.

"Yes," he said. "I had that illusion."

Against a bleak backdrop, Martinez has some hope. Four years ago, he dialed a wrong number on a borrowed cell phone. That accident put him in touch with Marta Ramos, 36, who has been his girlfriend ever since.

Ramos, a shy woman with a broad smile, sells tamales to restaurants. She lives in a trailer at a friend's place but hopes sometime to live with Martinez in better surroundings.

Celebrating his father's birthday, Martinez planned to go out with Ramos tonight, perhaps for seafood.

She will give Martinez's father a shirt and a pair of pants. Martinez will give him the only gift he said he could afford -- a hug.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Excerpts From the Court Decision

Justice Clarence Thomas, in the lead opinion:

[Oliverio] Martinez was never made to be a "witness" against himself in violation of the 5th Amendment's Self-Incrimination Clause because his statements were never admitted as testimony against him in a criminal case.

Nor was he ever placed under oath and exposed to "the cruel trilemma of self-accusation, perjury or contempt." ... The text of the Self-Incrimination Clause simply cannot support the 9th Circuit's view that the mere use of compulsive questioning, without more, violates the Constitution....

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