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Court Finds Coercive Questioning OK
By 0aJames Gerstenzang
The Los Angeles
Tuesday 27 May 2003
Justices say defendants or suspects can be compelled to respond to police questioning, even though the statements may not be used against them in court
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled today that coercive 0aquestioning of a suspect by police officers -- even a gravely wounded man who 0ahas not been offered his Miranda rights -- does not violate a person's 0aConstitutional rights, as long as the questioning stops short of torture.
The court said defendants have the right not to have statements 0athey make to police used in court against them during trial. But defendants or 0asuspects can still be compelled to respond to police questioning.
The 6-to-3 decision is likely to have wide ramifications because 0ait could open the door to increased pressure by police officers interrogating 0apotential defendants.
At issue is the extent of the protections provided by the Fifth 0aAmendment against self-incrimination, the 1966 Miranda decision guaranteeing a 0aperson's right to remain silent in the face of police questioning and the right 0ato obtain a lawyer before being interrogated.
In the decision, however, the high court ruled that suspects have 0aa right to sue if they are tortured during police questioning.
In another Supreme Court case today, the court upheld the rights 0aof state workers under a federal law guaranteeing time off to care for children 0aor ailing relatives, departing from the court's line of cases that expand state 0arights at the expense of federal power or laws passed by Congress.
The court, in the decision written by Chief Justice William H. 0aRehnquist, held that state employees can sue in federal court to enforce their 0arights under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The Mirada ruling decision occurred in the 1997 case of an 0aOxnard, Calif., farm worker who was arrested and shot multiple times by police 0awho then questioned him -- despite his protestations -- as he lay gravely 0awounded.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that while 0aa person under police questioning has the right not to answer questions where 0athe answer might be self-incriminating in future criminal proceedings, "that 0adoes not alter our conclusion that a violation of the constitutional right 0aagainst self-incrimination occurs only if one has been compelled to be a witness 0aagainst himself in a criminal case."
Thomas wrote: "Mere coercion does not violate the text of the 0aself-incrimination clause absent use of the compelled statements in a criminal 0acase against the witness."
The farm worker, Oliverio Martinez, was questioned in a hospital 0aemergency room after he had been shot five times by police. He had not been told 0aof his rights to remain silent, or to have a lawyer's assistance, and he has 0amaintained that a police sergeant questioned him after he said he did not want 0athe questioning to continue.
The police supervisor pressed him to explain his version of the 0aevents leading to the shooting.
In a transcript of the interview, Martinez is said to have 0aresponded: "I am choking. I am dying, please."
The officer said: "If you are going to die, tell me what 0ahappened."
Martinez was not charged with a crime; the violence left him 0ablind and paralyzed and he sued the police sergeant and the City of Oxnard for, 0aamong other things, coercive questioning.
In its defense, the Oxnard police department asserted that the 0aMiranda ruling does not include a "constitutional right to be free of coercive 0ainterrogation," but only a right not to have forced confessions used at trial. 0aThe Bush administration sided with the police in the case.
Writing for the minority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the 0ainterrogation was akin to "an attempt to obtain an involuntary confession from a 0aprisoner by torturous methods."