Fifth Amendment restricted

Fifth Amendment restricted

By Joe Baker, Senior Editor

The U.S. Supreme Court, not long ago, sounded an ominous note against one of our most valued civil rights. The court took aim at the Fifth Amendment, the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination, and ruled police and federal investigators can force people to talk.

Justices said that can be done as long as the results are not used for prosecution purposes.

The 6-3 decision restricts and undercuts the highly publicized “Miranda warning,” which requires officers to inform a defendant of his or her right to remain silent. The ruling may result in more aggressive police questioning in hopes of getting evidence. While witnesses’ statements can’t be used against them in court, evidence can be used.

Some observers believe the ruling may be useful in the “war on terrorism.” They said FBI agents who spread out across the country after the attacks of 9-11 were mostly looking for information rather than convictions.

The immediate effect of the court’s action was to toss out part of a lawsuit brought on behalf of a farm worker in Oxnard, Calif., who was questioned by a police supervisor while in a hospital emergency room.

The high court said officers who shot Oliverio Martinez in the face and back, which blinded and paralyzed him, can be sued for using excessive force and, maybe, for their conduct at the hospital. Justices said the supervisor who persistently questioned Martinez as he screamed in pain did not violate the worker’s Fifth Amendment rights.

The decision is seen as a retreat from past rulings in Miranda cases. The court has agreed to hear three such cases later this year, one of them bearing directly on whether police may deliberately violate the right to remain silent.

“When the court handed down Miranda (1966), it set out clear lines,” said Charles Weisselberg, law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “When you crossed the line, you violated the constitutional right,” he said.

The Martinez case dealt with whether there is constitutional protection for an individual while he is questioned by police or only later, at trial. More liberal justices in the past said that suspects and witnesses had the right to remain silent. Unwilling witnesses had the right to “plead the Fifth Amendment” before investigating committees.

In the latest opinion, the court held that the Fifth Amendment came into play only at trial.

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