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 29, 2009

Dean v. United States: Accidental discharge sufficient for 924(c) sentencing enhancement

Dean’s gun accidentally discharged during a bank robbery, but no one was harmed. Dean was convicted of conspiring to commit a bank robbery and discharging a firearm during an armed robbery. Because the firearm was "discharged" during the robbery, he was sentenced pursuant to 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) to a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term. He appealed, contending that the discharge was accidental, and that 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) requires proof that the defendant intended to discharge the firearm. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that no proof of intent is required. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) requires no separate proof of intent. The 10-year mandatory minimum applies if a gun is discharged in the course of a violent or drug trafficking crime, whether on purpose or by accident.

Kansas v. Ventris: Exclusionary rule unnecessary to protect against Sixth Amendment violation through jailhouse snitch

Ventris was charged with murder and other crimes. The state planted another defendant in his cell as a "human listening device," even though Ventris’ right to counsel had attached. Predictably, Ventris made incriminating statements to his cellmate. The state later conceded that it violated Ventris’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel when it surreptitiously planted the snitch in Ventris’ jail cell. The state was prohibited from using the confession in its case-in-chief, but was allowed to use it to impeach Ventris’ own testimony at trial. Kansas held that such use was impermissible under the federal exclusionary rule and conceded that it had violated Ventris’ Sixth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court held 7-2 that this violation did not require exclusion of the informant’s testimony when offered for purposes of impeachment, reasoning that the Sixth Amendment violation occurred when the uncounseled interrogation was conducted, not at trial The question whether to exclude the statement at trial was a separate question, involving the "remedy" for the violation. The Court concluded that the interest in exclusion was outweighed by the need to prevent perjury and the integrity of the trial process. The Court found little appreciable police deterrence would occur as a result of exclusion because police, if they opted to obtain uncounseled statements, could not likely anticipate that the defendant would testify at trial, and would testify inconsistently with the prior uncounseled statement. Ominously, the Court refused to confirm Kansas’s concession of a Sixth Amendment violation, opening a wide door in future cases for the state or federal government to argue that no constitutional violation occurs where police obtain a voluntary statement by way of a jailhouse snitch.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cone v. Bell: No defaults in habeas despite state court holdings to contrary

After the State discredited Cone’s defense that he killed two people while suffering from acute psychosis caused by drug addiction, he was convicted and sentenced to death. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed on direct appeal and the state courts denied postconviction relief. Later, in a second petition for state postconviction relief, Cone raised the claim that the State had violated Brady v. Maryland by suppressing witness statements and police reports that would have corroborated his insanity defense and bolstered his case in mitigation of the death penalty. The state postconviction court denied him a hearing on the ground that the Brady claim had been previously determined, either on direct appeal or in earlier collateral proceedings. The state court of appeals affirmed. Cone filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, which was denied on two grounds, (1) The Brady claim was procedurally barred because the state courts’ disposition rested on adequate and independent state grounds that Cone had waived it by failing to present his claim in state court; (2) Even if he had not defaulted the claim, it would fail on its merits because none of the withheld evidence would have cast doubt on his guilt. The Sixth Circuit agreed with second point, but considered itself barred from reaching the claim’s merits because the state courts had ruled the claim previously determined or waived under state law. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the state courts’ rejection of Cone’s Brady claim does not rest on a ground that bars federal review. Neither of the State’s asserted justifications for such a bar–that the claim was decided by the State Supreme Court on direct review or that Cone had waived it by never properly raising it in state court–provides an independent and adequate state ground for denying review of Cone’s federal claim. The state court’s denial of the Brady claim on the ground it had been previously determined in state court rested on a false premise: Cone had not presented the claim in earlier proceedings and, consequently, the state courts had not passed on it. The Sixth Circuit’s rejection of the claim as procedurally defaulted because it had been twice presented to the Tennessee courts was thus erroneous. The Supreme Court found unpersuasive the State’s alternative argument that federal review is barred because the Brady claim was properly dismissed by the state courts as waived. Those courts held only that the claim had been previously determined, and the Supreme Court would not second-guess their judgment. Because the claim was properly preserved and exhausted in state court, it is not defaulted. Although the Court did not believe that the withheld evidence sustained Cone’s insanity defense at the guilt phase, it did hold the lower federal courts failed to adequately consider whether the withheld documents were material to Cone’s sentence. Both the quantity and quality of the suppressed evidence lend support to Cone’s trial position that he habitually used excessive amounts of drugs, that his addiction affected his behavior during the murders, and that the State’s contrary arguments were false and misleading. Because the suppressed evidence might have been material to the jury's assessment of the proper punishment, a full review of that evidence and its effect on the sentencing verdict is warranted.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Arizona v. Gant: Restricting searches of recently occupied vehicles

Police officers went to a house suspected of being used for narcotics activity. One officer knocked on the door, and Rodney Gant answered the officer’s knock on the door. The officers asked to speak with the homeowner, but Gant told them that the owner was not at home and would not return until later that day. Gant gave the officers information about his identity. The officers left and ran a records check on Gant and discovered that his license was suspended and that he had an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. The officers returned to the house that evening, finding two individuals outside the house. After investigation, they were arrested. While the officers were handcuffing the individuals and placing them in patrol cars, Gant drove up in his car and parked in the driveway. One officer summoned Gant as he got out of his car, and Gant walked approximately 8-12 feet toward the officer. The officer told Gant that he was under arrest for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed him, and placed him in a patrol car. Officers then searched the passenger compartment of Gant’s car and found a plastic baggie containing cocaine. Gant was charged with one count of possession of a narcotic drug for sale and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia. The Arizona trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence, and he was convicted of drug offenses. The state Supreme Court reversed, distinguishing New York v. Belton, 453 U. S. 454–which held that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of a recent occupant's lawful arrest–on the ground that it concerned the scope of a search incident to arrest but did not answer the question whether officers may conduct such a search once the scene has been secured. Because Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 , requires that a search incident to arrest be justified by either (a) the interest in officer safety or (b) the interest in preserving evidence, and the circumstances of Gant’s arrest implicated neither of those interests, the state Supreme Court found the search unreasonable. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, holding that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. Warrantless searches "are per se unreasonable," "subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U. S. 347 . The exception for a search incident to a lawful arrest applies only to "the area from within which [an arrestee] might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." Chimel, 395 U. S., at 763. The Court rejected a broad reading of Belton that would permit a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest even if there were no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. The safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel’s exception authorize a vehicle search only when there is a reasonable possibility of such access. Although it does not follow from Chimel, circumstances unique to the automobile context also justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is "reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle." Thornton v. United States, 541 U. S. 615 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment). Neither Chimel’s reaching-distance rule nor Thornton’s allowance for evidentiary searches authorized the search in this case. In contrast to Belton, which involved a single officer confronted with four unsecured arrestees, five officers handcuffed and secured Gant and the two other suspects in separate patrol cars before the search began. Gant clearly could not have accessed his car at the time of the search. An evidentiary basis for the search was also lacking. Belton and Thornton were both arrested for drug offenses, but Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license–an offense for which police could not reasonably expect to find evidence in Gant’s car. The search in this case was therefore unreasonable. In the end the Court was unpersuaded by the State’s argument that an expansive reading of Belton correctly balances law enforcement interests with an arrestee’s limited privacy interest in his vehicle. The Court found that the state seriously undervalues the privacy interests at stake, and it exaggerates both the clarity provided by a broad reading of Belton and its importance to law enforcement interests. A narrow reading of Belton and Thornton, together with the Court’s other Fourth Amendment decisions, e.g., Michigan v. Long, 463 U. S. 103 , and United States v. Ross, 456 U. S. 798, permit an officer to search a vehicle when safety or evidentiary concerns demand. Finally the court held that stare decisis does not require adherence to a broad reading of Belton, because 28 years of experience has proved that the assumption underpinning that case is unfounded, authorizing "myriad unconstitutional searches."

Monday, April 06, 2009

Corley v. United States - Presentment Delay Still Subject to McNabb-Mallory, as Limited by 3501

Title 18 U.S.C. § 3501 – read together with Fed. R. Crim. P. Rule 5(a), McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332 (1943), and Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449 (1957) – requires that a confession taken more than six hours after arrest and before presentment be suppressed if there was unreasonable or unnecessary delay in bringing the defendant before the magistrate judge. Section 3501 modified McNabb-Mallory but did not supplant it. Johnnie Corley was convicted of bank robbery. The only evidence introduced at trial identifying Mr. Corley as a participant in the robbery consisted of two statements law enforcement obtained from him more than six hours after his arrest, and before he was brought to a federal magistrate. Mr. Corley did not see the magistrate until nearly 30 hours after his arrest. The sequence of events began when Corley was arrested at 8:00 a.m. on September 17, 2003, after federal and state law enforcement identified him as a suspect in the bank robbery. He was arrested on an outstanding bench warrant from state court. During the arrest, Corley resisted and had a physical altercation with an FBI agent. As a result, he was placed under federal arrest for assault on a federal officer and taken to a local police station for processing. At 11:45 a.m., he was taken from the police station to a hospital in Philadelphia, where he was admitted at 12:12 p.m. He received five sutures and was discharged at 3:20 p.m. Corley was next brought to the FBI office in Philadelphia, arriving at 3:30 p.m. Although the FBI offices are located in the same building as the federal magistrate judges’ courtrooms and chambers, he was not presented to a federal magistrate judge. Instead, he was kept in the FBI offices for interrogation regarding the bank robbery. By this point, 7 ½ hours had already elapsed since his arrest. The only apparent reason for the delay in presentment following the hospital discharge was the agents’ desire to question Corley. At 5:07 p.m. – still without being presented to a magistrate judge, and after being informed he was under arrest for assault on a federal officer and under investigation for bank robbery – Corley signed a waiver of rights form. He confessed shortly afterwards, but when asked to put his confession in writing, said that he was tired and asked to continue the following day. The interrogation resumed at 10:30 a.m. on September 18. Corley signed a written confession soon afterwards. He finally appeared before a federal magistrate judge to be informed of his rights at 1:30 p.m. – 29 ½ hours after his arrest. The district court judge found that both the oral and written statements were voluntary and denied a motion to suppress the statements. The district court also found that the oral statement was made within six hours of the arrest. On appeal, the majority decision of the Third Circuit did not dispute that both statements were outside the six-hour period and that the district court erred in this regard, but ruled that governing circuit precedent allowed admission of the statements because they were given voluntarily. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded: "The question here is whether Congress intended 18 U.S.C. § 3501 to discard, or merely to narrow, the rule in McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332 (1943), and Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449 (1957), under which an arrested person’s confession is inadmissible if given after an unreasonable delay in bringing him before a judge. We hold that Congress meant to limit, not eliminate, McNabb-Mallory."

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Harbison v. Bell - Right to Federally-Appointed Clemency Counsel

(1) 18 U.S.C. § 3599 authorizes federally appointed counsel to represent their clients in state clemency proceedings and entitles them to compensation for that representation, and (2) A certificate of appealability pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)(A) is not required to appeal an order denying a request for federally appointed counsel under § 3599 because § 2253(c)(1)(A) governs only final orders that dispose of a habeas corpus proceeding’s merits.