(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Monday, December 02, 2002

Supreme Court

The final case for the upcoming week is Chavez v. Martinez. This is the case that has been much-discussed in the blog world, as to whether it will result in an "overruling" of Miranda, whether it will allow the authorities to torture suspects, etc. It's going to be pretty bad, but not quite that bad.

Here's the deal: Martinez was shot by the police several times. So what did Sergeant Chavez do, as Martinez lay in the hospital receiving emergency treatment? Something helpful, you might hope? Think again: he coercively interrogated Martinez. Not only did Chavez omit any Miranda warning; as the court below described the scene,
As emergency room personnel treated Martinez, Sergeant Chavez began a taped interview. Chavez did not preface his questions by reciting Miranda warnings. The interview lasted 45 minutes. The medical staff asked Chavez to leave the trauma room several times, but the tape shows that he returned and resumed questioning. Chavez turned off the tape recorder each time medical personnel removed him from the room. The transcript of the recorded conversation totals about ten minutes and provides an incontrovertible account of the interview.

Sergeant Chavez pressed Martinez with persistent, directed questions regarding the events leading up to the shooting. Most of Martinez's answers were non-responsive. He complained that he was in pain, was choking, could not move his legs, and was dying. He drifted in and out of consciousness. By the district court's tally, "[d]uring the questioning at the hospital, [Martinez] repeatedly begged for treatment; he told [Sergeant Chavez] he believed he was dying eight times; complained that he was in extreme pain on fourteen separate occasions; and twice said he did not want to talk any more." Chavez stopped only when medical personnel moved Martinez out of the emergency room to perform a C.A.T. scan.
And there's a Supreme Court precedent, almost precisely on point, holding that a hospital-bed statement couldn't be used against the defendant, not even in impeachment of his testimony, under the Constitution.

So you'd think that the Supreme Court would readily affirm the Ninth Circuit's decision (pdf) holding that Martinez had a viable claim against Chavez for violating his constitutional rights, right?

Wrong. Because although it's clear that the government couldn't use at trial a statement that was obtained in this way, it's somewhat less clear whether the Constitution simply forbids the Government from obtaining a statement in this way.

The Ninth Circuit held (in this case, and in prior cases that the judges in this case followed) that under these circumstances there is a constitutional violation in the questioning itself. In order to get affirmed, Martinez has to convince the Court of two things: (1) that the Ninth Circuit was right about that – that there's a constitutional deprivation in the questioning itself, not just in the use of statements at trial; and (2) that the existence of that constitutional right not to be questioned under these circumstances -- as distinct from the right not to have statements used at trial – was "clearly established" so as to overcome Chavez's "qualified immunity."

Here, let me disagree a little bit with Howard Bashman, who says that this is "simply" a qualified immunity case and can't really result in doing away with Miranda. I think that the possibilities are worse than Howard suggests, because in a qualified immunity case this Court has said that you must first decide whether the constitutional right exists, and can't skip over that step and just say "if it exists or not, it's not clearly established right now." So there is a substantial possibility, I think, that the Court will say, in effect, "no, Martinez's rights weren't violated at all, because the statement was not used at trial." This would mean, in simple terms, that you DON'T have a "right to remain silent" – the police CAN coerce you into talking, at least if the State is willing to forego using the statement and any resulting evidence at trial. This wouldn't really directly overrule Miranda, but would make "you have the right to remain silent" a pleasant lie or at least gross oversimplification.

Even if there aren't five Justices to go that far, I doubt seriously that Martinez can win on the "qualified immunity"/"clearly established" part of the case. Qualified immunity is a judge-made doctrine that shields government officials from being sued for violating your constitutional rights unless the constitutional right they violated was so clear that any fool could have seen it. It's based on a silly fiction that police officers, mid-level managers in government offices, and all other public employees, are reading and understanding all the legal decisions as they are issued. It needs to be abolished. But it won't, and for now it's a very strong protection. Strong enough, at least, that if (as here) a Sergeant's lawyers can piece together just a plausible argument that he wasn't violating the suspect's rights, based on Supreme Court musings in other cases, he can probably win based on qualified immunity. So I'm saying REVERSE.

This means I've predicted reversal in all 6 of this week's cases, for whatever that's worth.

posted by sam 7:36 AM 0 comments


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger


email: first name@last name dot net