The case, in which oral arguments will be heard by SCOTUS on Dec. 4, involves a farm worker, Oliverio Martinez, in Oxnard, California five years ago. Martinez was riding his bicycle at dusk across a vacant lot near some houses. Two police officers had stopped nearby to question another man they suspected, wrongly, of selling drugs. When they heard the bicycle they told the rider, Oliverio Martinez, to stop. Martinez had a long knife that he used to cut strawberries in a leather sheath on a waist band. When one of the officer patted him down and grabbed for the knife, Martinez tried to run. The officer tackled him and tried to handcuff him. As they struggled on the ground, the officer called out that the man had a knife. The other officer then fired five shots; one bullet entering Martinez near his left eye and exiting behind his right eye. Another bullet hit his spine and three more bullets entered his legs.
When patrol supervisor Sgt. Ben Chavez arrived, the handcuffed farm worker lay bleeding on the ground. Once Martinez was loaded into an ambulance, Sgt. Chavez also entered the ambulance and rode to the hospital with Martinez, and recorded the subsequent interview on a tape recorder. During the ambulance ride and at the hospital, he repeatedly asked the Martinez to admit he had grabbed the officer's gun and provoked the struggle which resulted in the shooting.
From a Los AngelesTimes article (registration required):
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 will 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.
Oxnard's position in this case is that the suit should be dismissed because the patrol supervisor was merely trying to learn what had happened. U.S. District Judge Florence Cooper disagreed and said that the questioning of Martinez in the ambulance and later in the hospital suggested he had sought to obtain an admission from Martinez that would clear the two officers. A federal judge ordered that case to go forward. Before the trial Oxnard's (under California law, cities and counties are responsible for paying money verdicts against their officers) lawyers appealed on behalf of Sgt. Chavez saying he had not violated any of Martinez's Constitutional rights. The appeal was rejected by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Richard Tallman writing this in his decision:
"Sgt. Chavez doggedly pursued a statement by Martinez despite being asked to leave the emergency room several times. A reasonable officer, questioning a suspect who had been shot five times by the police and then arrested, who had not received Miranda warnings and who was receiving medical treatment for excruciating, life-threatening injuries ... would have known that persistent interrogation of the suspect despite repeated requests to stop violated the suspect's 5th and 14th Amendment right to be free from coercive interrogation."
Oxnard then appealed again, sending the case to SCOTUS. In their appeal they asked a basic question. Is there a constitutional right to be free of coercive police interrogation? The answer to that question should be no, they said, citing a 1990 ruling by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in which Rehnquist said that the right against self-incrimination in the 5th Amendment was a "trial right." Police cannot violate this right when they force someone to talk, since "a constitutional violation occurs only at trial."
Martinez's lawyer R. Samuel Paz says, "They are taking a radical position. [If they are right, it] would permit officers to engage in the most egregious and abusive conduct in violation of decades of 5th Amendment jurisprudence,"
SCOTUS has agreed to hear Oxnard's appeal posing the broad question of whether the Constitution regulates police questioning that does not lead to an incriminating statement in court. Most lawyers who have followed the case think the Rehnquist court will overrule the 9th Circuit and side with Oxnard, although some think that the brutality of the shooting may cause some justices to side with Martinez.
What will it mean if the Supreme Court sides with Oxnard in this case? According to University of Texas law professor Susan Klein, " This will be, in essence, a reversal of Miranda. 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? 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."
Meanwhile, Martinez lives with his father in a one-room trailer on a farm field in Oxnard. He is in a wheelchair and wears dark glasses to cover his missing eye. Oxnard's lawyers have refused requests to pay for any therapy for him, saying they are not willing to make a temporary settlement. The three officers involved in the Martinez shooting remain on the Oxnard police force and suffered no disciplinary action as a result of it.