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Justice Takes a Beating

May 28, 2003

While Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas labored to justify the bullying interrogation of a farm worker whom an Oxnard police officer had just gravely wounded, Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, called the inquisition what it was: "the functional equivalent" of torture. Thomas' 6-3 majority opinion Tuesday rolls back decades of constitutional protections against self-incrimination and all but invites the backroom rough-'em-up police tactics of old.

The farm worker, Oliverio Martinez, is blind and partly paralyzed from the five bullets that police pumped into his body after they stopped him in connection with an investigation of possible drug sales in his Oxnard neighborhood. Although Martinez initially complied with orders to dismount from his bicycle, a scuffle resulted when the officers discovered he was carrying a knife and Martinez was shot.

Paramedics arrived and carted away Martinez, bleeding and screaming, to a hospital. For nearly an hour, as Martinez waited for medical treatment and then as doctors tended him, the officers pressured him to confess to starting the fight.

"I am dying!" Martinez cried.

"OK, yes, you are dying," the officer said. "But tell me why you are fighting with the police."

Not once did the police officers inform Martinez of his right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present. Instead, to try to badger him into a confession, they took advantage of his physical agony and mental anguish and the fact that he couldn't move from the hospital bed.

In the end, the officers got nothing useful from Martinez and never charged him with a crime. Martinez sued, both for the shooting and for civil damages on the ground that police violated his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and his due process rights against egregious police conduct. The shooting lawsuit still stands.

Writing for a splintered majority, Thomas insisted that where there was no harm of any legal consequence, there was no foul. "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.... [T]he mere use of compulsive questioning, without more, [does not] violate the Constitution." Such a narrow thread of reasoning cuts a wide path to cruelty.

Because Martinez had not been advised of his rights, the court said, had police charged him based on his nearly incoherent statements, his disclosures would not have been admissible as evidence anyway.

Three cases before the court next term could push at the boundaries of permissible evidence in criminal cases. The Martinez case turns back the clock, and the coming cases could multiply the harm to a civilized justice system.

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