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Law School Case Brief

Chavez v. Martinez - 538 U.S. 760, 123 S. Ct. 1994 (2003)


A police officer is entitled to qualified immunity if his alleged conduct did not violate a constitutional right. The text of the Fifth Amendment's Self-Incrimination Clause cannot support the Ninth Circuit's view that mere compulsive questioning violates the Constitution.


During an altercation in the city of Oxnard, California, respondent Oliverio Martinez was shot by a police officer, resulting in severe injuries, and then placed under arrest. Petitioner Ben Chavez, a police supervisor who arrived on the scene and accompanied Martinez to a hospital, where Chavez, without giving Miranda warnings, questioned Martinez while he was receiving medical treatment. The interrogation lasted a total of about 10 minutes over about a 45-minute period, with some intervals apparently occurring when medical personnel attended to Martinez. Respondent Martinez was never charged with any crime related to the altercation. Martinez then filed a civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 against several defendants including petitioner Chavez. The action included claims that Chavez's  interrogation was coercive and had violated his rights under the Federal Constitution's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. With respect to these claims, the federal district court denied the Chavez's assertion of qualified immunity and granted Martinez summary judgment. On interlocutory appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in upholding the denial of qualified immunity, expressed the view that under a Court of Appeals precedent, Chavez's custodial questioning had violated Martinez's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination; furthermore, a police officer likewise violated the Fourteenth Amendment when the officer obtained a confession by coercive conduct, regardless of whether the confession was subsequently used at trial. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review.


Was a police supervisor, who asked questions of a suspect while he was received medical treatment, entitled to qualified immunity?




The United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment, holding that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity since the officer committed no violation of Martinez's constitutional rights. A plurality of the Court found that Martinez was not compelled to be a witness against himself, and the circumstances warranted the intense questioning to preserve Martinez's version of events. A majority of the Court agreed, however, that because additional consideration was necessary to address whether Martinez could pursue a claim of liability for a substantive due process violation, that the case must be remanded for further proceedings.

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