June 11, 2003

Dropping the Ball on Torture: The US Supreme Court Ruling in Chavez vs. Martinez

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The use of torture to obtain information from suspects has become an important topic in fighting the war on terror. In December, for example, the Washington Post reported that CIA officials at Bagram air base in Afghanistan used interrogation techniques that could constitute torture.

In Chavez v. Martinez, decided May 27, the United States Supreme Court was presented with a golden opportunity to address the issue of torture in the context of a 42 U.S.C. §1983 claim against police. Acting like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming truck, the high court failed to take decisive action. The facts of this case were egregious.

Oliverio Martinez was riding his bicycle to his girlfriend’s house when two Oxnard police officers ordered him to dismount, spread his legs, and place his hands behind his head. A frisk of Martinez yielded a knife and an altercation ensued. Martinez was shot five times, leaving him paralyzed and blind.

On the way to the hospital and in the emergency room, Officer Ben Chavez repeatedly interrogated Martinez. In response to Chavez’ questions about what had occurred during the altercation with the officers, Martinez said several times, “I am dying” and “I am choking.” At one point, Martinez told Chavez, “I want them to treat me,” and he later asked Chavez, “Aren’t you going to treat me or what?”

The District Court found that Martinez “had been shot in the face, both eyes were injured; he was screaming in pain, and coming in and out of consciousness while being repeatedly questioned about the details of the encounter with the police.” Martinez admitted taking the officer’s gun and pointing it at the police; he also admitted that he regularly used heroin. At no time did Chavez Mirandize Martinez, who was never charged with a crime.

Both of Martinez’s constitutional arguments, violation of his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and violation of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, were sustained by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The U.S. Supreme Court was so fractured it produced six separate opinions. Six justices agreed that Martinez could not recover against Chavez for violation of Martinez’s privilege against self-incrimination, since he had not been criminally prosecuted. Five justices, writing for a Court unable to agree on whether Martinez’s due process rights had been violated by Chavez, punted that issue back to the lower court.

It is well-settled that police methods so brutal and offensive to human dignity that they shock the conscience violate the due process clause. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing also for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, was satisfied that Chavez’s interrogation of Martinez did not constitute a due process violation. Thomas admitted that “police torture or other abuse that results in a confession is [not] constitutionally permissible [even if] the statements are not used at trial.” Thomas’s denial of Martinez’s due process claim, however, is an implicit rejection of the notion that police used torture to elicit statements from Martinez.

Three justices – John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – discussed this case with reference to torture. Stevens felt so strongly that Chavez’s conduct rose to the level of torture, he began his separate opinion with the following words: “As a matter of fact, the interrogation of respondent was the functional equivalent of an attempt to obtain an involuntary confession from a prisoner by torturous methods.”

Kennedy wrote separately: “A constitutional right is traduced the moment torture or its close equivalents are brought to bear. Constitutional protection for a tortured suspect is not held in abeyance until some later criminal proceeding takes place. These are the premises of this separate opinion.” In Kennedy’s words, Martinez’s “blinding facial wounds made it impossible for him visually to distinguish the interrogating officer from the attending medical personnel. The officer made no effort to dispel the perception that medical treatment was being withheld until Martinez answered the questions put to him … Martinez begged the officer to desist and provide treatment for his wounds, but the questioning persisted despite these pleas and despite Martinez’s unequivocal refusal to answer questions.”

Justices Stevens and Ginsburg agreed with Kennedy, who wrote that “severe compulsion or even torture” violates the right against compelled self-incrimination, and that the “use of torture or its equivalent in an attempt to induce a statement violates an individual’s fundamental right to liberty of the person,” a violation of due process.

In her separate opinion, Ginsburg cited with approval Stevens’s characterization of “Martinez’s interrogation as ‘the functional equivalent of an attempt to obtain an involuntary confession from a prisoner by torturous methods’.” She also quoted E. Griswold in The Fifth Amendment Today, who analogized “the struggle to eliminate torture as a governmental practice” with the privilege against self-incrimination, “one of the great landmarks in man’s struggle to make himself civilized.”

None of the justices mentioned the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Torture Convention is an international treaty ratified by the United States and therefore part of our supreme law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. The Convention’s definition of torture includes any act of a public official, by which severe mental suffering is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information or a confession, or to coerce him. Chavez’s conduct fits the Convention’s definition of torture.

The justices should not have hesitated to underscore our duties under the Torture Convention. Indeed, Justices Stevens, O’Connor, and Souter have advanced international law to support their opinions in other cases.

The Supreme Court’s failure to definitively resolve this case is disturbing. The Court must face the difficult issues arising from the “war on terror” without trepidation. The same day the Court announced its decision in Chavez v. Martinez, it refused to review whether the hundreds of secret deportation hearings since September 11, 2001, violated the First Amendment, and indeed, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, another treaty ratified by the United States.

Litigators must educate judges about the international jurisprudence that has been incorporated into our domestic law. Jurists must incorporate treaty principles into their decisions. And hopefully, Oliverio Martinez, who was subjected to incomprehensible anguish in that ambulance and emergency room, will receive some relief for his suffering.