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Supreme Court-Violation of Miranda does not Violate 5th Amendment but may Violate Due Process

Jack Ryan

In a decision dated May 27, 2003, the United States Supreme Court held that interrogation undertaken and continued in violation of Miranda, does not give rise to a civil lawsuit based on a violation of the Fifth Amendment in cases where the police never attempt to introduce the statement in a criminal trial. Chavez v. Martinez, 538 U.S. ___, slip op. No. 01-1444 (2003)

The Court did not clearly decide what police conduct while interrogating an individual would violate Due Process rights. Three Justices would have used standards set forth in Sacramento v. Lewis before a plaintiff can establish a violation of Due Process rights. Three Justices concluded that a violation of Due Process rights had occurred. Two Justices, joined the three who suggested that a Due Process violation had occurred in voting to remand the case to the 9th Circuit for further review of the Due Process claim. Justice O’Connor simply did not mention the Due Process issue in her opinion.

The events giving rise to the lawsuit brought against Sergeant Chavez began when two officers in Oxnard, California investigating narcotics activity near a vacant lot, heard Martinez, the plaintiff in this case, riding up on a bicycle. The noise of the bicycle was coming from a darkened “path that crossed the lot.” The officers shouted for Martinez to stop, dismount from the bike, spread his legs and put his hands behind his head. Martinez was frisked and a knife was seized from his waistband.

A confrontation then ensued in which the officers asserted that Martinez grabbed the gun of one of the officers and pointed it at the officers. Martinez denied that he grabbed the gun but acknowledged hearing one of the officers shouting “He’s got my gun!” The second officer then shot Martinez leaving him permanently blinded and paralyzed from the waist down.

The issue before the Supreme Court was not the shooting itself, but rather the questioning of Martinez by Sergeant Chavez, who had responded to the scene. Sergeant Chavez accompanied Martinez to the hospital and, over the course of a 45 minute span, sporadically questioned Martinez about the shooting. The actual questioning lasted a total of ten minutes with the sergeant taking breaks so that Martinez could be treated by medical personnel.

At no time during the questioning of Martinez did the sergeant give Martinez Miranda warnings. Martinez made admissions regarding disarming the officer as well as his regular use of heroin during the interview, although at several times during the interview he made statements regarding a desire not to speak until he had been medically treated.

Martinez was never charged with a crime as a result of this incident and the statements were never used against him in any criminal case. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that that “coercive questioning of Martinez” without the benefit of Miranda warnings, violated Martinez’ 5th Amendment rights and also found that “a police officer violates the Fourteenth Amendment when he obtains a confession by coercive conduct, regardless of whether the confession is subsequently used at trial.”

In its review of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, the United Supreme Court looked at the clear language of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The Fifth Amendment’s mandate is that “no person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Since there was never a criminal case brought against Martinez, he could not make out a 5th Amendment claim. The Court pointed out that the Fifth Amendment does not include the entire “criminal investigative process” but instead applies only to the use of statements in criminal cases.

In reviewing Martinez’ Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim, Justice Thomas would have applied the “shocks the conscience” standard as set forth in County of Sacramento v. Lewis, asserting that police conduct shocks the conscience in cases where the officer has an intent and purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest. This standard is very difficult for plaintiffs to meet. The Court could not reach any majority consensus on the Due Process claim with respect to the proper standard or whether Chavez’ conduct would have met some standard. The case was remanded to the 9th Circuit for further review of the Due Process issue.

It should be noted that this second holding left open the possibility of a civil rights lawsuit based in Due Process.

Policy Consideration:

Many agencies authorize officers to continue questioning outside of Miranda. Agencies should recognize that liability may exist on a Due Process claim from such conduct.

Best Practices would prohibit the intentional violation of a suspect’s request to remain silent or request for counsel


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