Supreme Court Review-Preview-Overview

An up-to-date outline of Supreme Court criminal cases
is available here. It covers pending cert grants and decisions from the past and current Terms. Other "cites" of interest are available here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Virginia v. Moore - Search OK Following Arrest Violating State Law

Rather than issuing the summons required by Virginia law, police arrested Moore for the misdemeanor of driving on a suspended license. A search incident to the arrest yielded crack cocaine, for which Moore was charged and tried. The trial court declined to suppress the evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that the search violated the Fourth Amendment because the arresting officers should have issued a citation under state law, and the Fourth Amendment does not permit search incident to citation. In a unanimous decision written by Justice Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that police did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they made an arrest that was based on probable cause but prohibited by state law, or when they performed a search incident to the arrest. A unanimous Supreme Court found no historical support for the notion that the Founders intended to incorporate statutes into the Fourth Amendment; neither the common law nor statutes of the Founding era support the defendant’s contention. Where history does not provide a conclusive answer, the Court analyzes a search or seizure in light of traditional reasonableness standards "by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests." Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U. S. 295, 300 (1999); see Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U. S. 927, 931 (1995). Applying that methodology, the Court has previously held that when an officer has probable cause to believe a person committed even a minor crime, the arrest is constitutionally reasonable. Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318 (2001). A State’s choice of a more restrictive search-and-seizure policy does not render less restrictive ones unreasonable, and hence unconstitutional. While States are free to require their officers to engage in nuanced determinations of the need for arrest as a matter of their own law, the Fourth Amendment should reflect administrable bright-line rules. Incorporating state arrest rules into the Constitution would make Fourth Amendment protections as complex as the underlying state law, and variable from place to place and time to time. The Court sustained the search, as well as the arrest. Having arrested Moore, the officers were also entitled to search him, as in any other search incident to arrest, to ensure their safety and to safeguard evidence. Only Justice Ginsburg, who filed a separate concurrence, saw historical support for the defendant’s view, but even she was persuaded that Atwater governs the outcome here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Begay v. United States: DUI not a Violent Felony under ACCA

ACCA imposes a special mandatory 15-year prison term upon felons who unlawfully possess a firearm and who have three or more prior convictions for certain drug crimes or "violent felonies." Begay had 12 prior convictions for driving while intoxicated in violation of New Mexico law. The district court applied three of these convictions as a predicate for an enhanced ACCA sentence. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that felony DUI under New Mexico law is not a "violent felony" for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. The Court held that the determinative question is not how the defendant may have committed the prior crimes, but rather how the statute defines it. Even if DUI involves conduct that presents serious risk of physical injury to another, it is too unlike the example crimes enumerated in ACCA – burglary, arson, extortion, and crimes involving explosives– to be included under the residual clause of ACCA. Moreover, DUI differs in an important respect from the example crimes, in that it does not involve purposeful, violent, and aggressive conduct that is the centerpiece of the example crimes. Justice Scalia’s concurrence highlights that the analytical framework of this decision differs from the Court’s expansively inclusive residual clause analysis last term in James v. United States, 550 U.S. ___ (2007) (holding attempted burglary a violent felony under ACCA’s residual clause), from which he had dissented.

Burgess v. United States: Misdemenaor=Felony

The federal Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), doubles the mandatory minimum sentence for certain federal drug crimes if the defendant was previously convicted of a "felony drug offense." Burgess pled guilty to a federal crack charge carrying 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, but that mandatory minimum sentence was doubled to 20 years based on a prior South Carolina misdemeanor drug conviction that carried a maximum sentence of two years. Burgess argued that "felony drug offense" has two components: it must be a felony and it must carry a sentence of in excess of one year; since South Carolina classified his prior offense as a misdemeanor, it could not qualify despite the maximum potential punishment of two years. The Supreme Court rejected this contention, holding instead that the federal statutory definition controls, and that 21 U.S.C. § 802(44) is the exclusive definition of the term "felony drug offense" in § 841(b)(1)(A); under that definition, a state drug offense punishable by more than one year qualifies as a felony drug offense, even if the state law classifies the offense as a misdemeanor.

Baze v. Rees: Lethal Injection Cocktail Constitutional

In a fractured opinion, a plurality of the Court held that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not prohibit the most common method of lethal injection, involving a three-drug cocktail, sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. Although the final tally of concurrences provided a 7-2 vote, there was no opinion that spoke for five or more justices. The Court’s plurality adopted as a standard for assessing the validity of an execution method whether it poses a "substantial risk of serious harm." It rejected the death row inmate’s proposal that the standard be "unnecessary risk of pain and suffering."