Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Louisiana Supreme Court
by
Defendant Hunter Fussell was indicted for a first degree rape of a victim under the age of thirteen that he was alleged to have committed on or shortly after his fifteenth birthday. Defendant filed motions contending that the automatic transfer provision of Article 305(A) violated several constitutional provisions, both state and federal, as well as evolving United States Supreme Court jurisprudence recognizing the special characteristics of juveniles that could affect their capabilities and culpability. In response, the district court ultimately ruled that this automatic transfer provision violates due process and that a transfer hearing, comparable to the one provided in Children’s Code art. 862,1 was constitutionally required before a juvenile could be transferred to a district court exercising criminal jurisdiction. The party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears a heavy burden in proving that statute unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court determined defendant failed to carry the burden of showing Article 305(A) was unconstitutional. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the district court's ruling, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Louisiana vs. Fussell" on Justia Law

by
In 2014, defendant David Bourg fatally shot Michael Pitre in the head while they were sitting in defendant's truck parked outside Pitre's mother's home in Oberlin, Louisiana. Defendant and the victim had been drinking, and defendant claimed at trial that his weapon discharged accidentally while he was defending himself against the victim. A jury found defendant guilty of manslaughter in response to the charge of second degree murder. The district court granted defendant’s motion for new trial pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 851(B)(1). In doing so, the district court emphasized its evaluation of defendant’s testimony in conjunction with the forensic evidence. On direct review, the court of appeal found that the State had failed to file a motion for imposition of a sentence under the enhancement provision of La.C.Cr.P. art. 893.3, as required by La.C.Cr.P. art. 893.1. Therefore, the court of appeal vacated the sentence. The court of appeal also declined to revisit its earlier determination that the district court erred in granting the motion for new trial. Applying the law-of-the-case doctrine, the court of appeal found no clear error in its prior ruling and affirmed the conviction. The Louisiana Supreme Court did not find as the appellate court did, that the district court failed to weigh the evidence as a "thirteenth juror." "There is no confusion between factual and legal sufficiency that can fairly be discerned from this record." Accordingly, the Supreme Court granted defendant’s application to reverse the court of appeal’s affirmance of the conviction, reinstated the district court’s ruling that granted defendant a new trial pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 851(B)(1), and remanded to the district court for further proceedings. View "Louisiana vs. Bourg" on Justia Law

by
By separate bills of information, defendant Valentino Hodge was charged with one count of domestic abuse battery by strangulation in the presence of a minor, and with one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Defendant pleaded not guilty, and the charges were slated for a jury trial. Owing in large measure to the defendant’s vacillation between being represented by appointed counsel and seeking retained counsel, the trial date was continued several times. In January 2019, the state filed a motion in limine seeking to have the district court declare that the defendant would be tried by a jury composed of twelve jurors, ten of whom must concur to render a verdict. The next day, without a hearing, the district court signed an order denying the state’s motion in limine and declaring that defendant was entitled to a unanimous jury verdict pursuant to the district court’s own earlier ruling in Louisiana v. Maxie, 11th Judicial District Court, No. 13-CR-72522, October 11, 2018. The Louisiana Supreme Court determined the district court committed two interrelated errors: (1) creating, on its own initiative, a constitutional challenge to statutory law and to provisions of the Louisiana Constitution; and (2) striking down the jury verdict regime as unconstitutional on the basis of an earlier, nonbinding district court holding. Based on these errors, the Supreme Court vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded for further proceedings. View "Louisiana v. Hodge" on Justia Law

by
In 2016, a jury found defendant Henri Lyles guilty of an aggravated battery, committed in 2015. The State filed a habitual offender bill of information alleging two predicate offenses: a 1991 distribution of cocaine conviction, and a 2004 manslaughter conviction. In early 2017, the district court adjudicated defendant a third-felony offender and sentenced him to the life sentence mandated by La.R.S. 15:529.1(A)(3)(b) (effective August 15, 2010). The court of appeal vacated the habitual offender sentence and remanded for resentencing because of the trial court’s failure to vacate the underlying aggravated battery sentence. After remand, the district court resentenced defendant on to the same term of imprisonment under the same provision of law. Defendant appealed, contending the Habitual Offender law, as amended by 2017 La. Acts 282, should have been applied to him. Among other changes, the act reduced from ten to five years the time allowed (known as the cleansing period) between expiration of correctional supervision for one offense and commission of the next offense on the habitual offender ladder. Defendant’s probation for distribution of cocaine expired in 1996 and he did not commit manslaughter until 2003. Therefore, defendant contended he was a second-felony offender subject to a sentencing range of 3 1/3 to 20 years imprisonment under the amended law. Finding Act 282 applied, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal, vacated the habitual offender adjudication and sentence, and remanded with instructions to the district court for further proceedings. View "Louisiana vs. Lyles" on Justia Law

by
After defendant Desmond Parker was found guilty of simple robbery and intimidating a witness, the State filed a habitual offender bill of information alleging that defendant was a fourth-felony offender. The district court adjudicated defendant as a third-felony offender after finding that the State failed to prove an out-of-state guilty plea was entered in compliance with Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969). The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine if the lower courts correctly found that the State failed to carry its burden of proving a prior out-of-state guilty plea was knowing, voluntary, and made with an express waiver of defendant’s rights in accordance with Boykin. Finding the State indeed failed to carry its burden, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeal, which found the district court correctly rejected this predicate guilty plea and adjudicated defendant as a third, rather than as a fourth, felony offender. View "Louisiana vs. Parker" on Justia Law

by
In 2011, four men, including Merlin Smothers and Jeremiah Harris, were engaged in illegal activities in Harris’s vehicle when a blue Monte Carlo pulled up behind them. A person stood up through the Monte Carlo’s sunroof and began shooting at them with an assault rifle. Harris was shot but survived. Smothers escaped injury. Police chased the Monte Carlo and ultimately apprehended the driver of the vehicle, Eugene Brashears, who was the only person in the vehicle by the time police were able to catch it. Smothers and Harris described the shooter as a black male wearing a red hat but they were otherwise unable to identify him. Two red hats were found in the vehicle but no firearm remained. DNA recovered from one red hat matched Brashears and he tested positive for gunshot residue. No one was charged with this shooting at the time and Brashears was deceased by the time of defendant Kenneth Jones' trial. Years later when Smothers and Harris were arrested on federal charges related to heroin distribution they identified defendant as the shooter in the 2011 incident. Defendant was indicted by grand jury and ultimately found guilty of two counts of attempted second degree murder and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. From the trial court’s lone statement that it was not satisfied with defendant’s proffered race-neutral reasons for challenging jurors of the venire, the Louisiana Supreme Court found it "inappropriate to infer that the district court did not blur the line between Batson’s second and third steps . . . and that the court did not impermissibly shift the burden onto the defense to rebut the State’s prima facie case." Accordingly, it reversed the court of appeal, vacated the convictions and sentences, and remanded the case to the district court for a new trial. The Court urged the district court to proceed "with extreme caution on retrial if the State again tries to rely so heavily on undocumented statements that have been disavowed by the purported informants." View "Louisiana vs. Jones" on Justia Law

by
In 2016, a grand jury indicted defendant Fred Reimonenq on charges of first degree rape, attempted first degree rape, and sexual battery of a victim under the age of 13. Trial was scheduled to begin on September 25, 2018. On the Sunday before this trial date, the state presented defense counsel with a curriculum vitae, but apparently nothing more, of Anne Troy, Ph.D., a sexual assault nurse examiner, who it intended to call as an expert witness at trial. On the morning of trial, the state provided defense counsel with formal notice of its intent to use Dr. Troy’s testimony. Defendant filed a motion in limine to exclude any expert testimony that had not been properly noticed under La.C.Cr.P. art. 719, including Dr. Troy’s testimony. The trial court granted the defense’s motion in limine and excluded Dr. Troy’s testimony. The court disallowed any attempt at supplementation based upon its finding there was “a timing issue” that still made the late notice “prejudicial to the [d]efense and [did] not afford the [d]efense the opportunity to conduct whatever defensive positions it might otherwise be able to take had it had more time . . . .” The state noted its intent to apply for supervisory writs, but did not do so, and, instead, opted to enter a nolle prosequi. Two days later, on September 27, 2018, the state filed a new indictment on the same charges. On October 18, defendant appeared for arraignment and orally moved to adopt all previous filings and motions from the original case. Trial was then set for December 3, 2018. On November 27, 2018, the state filed its supplemental notice pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 719 with respect to Dr. Troy’s testimony. On the morning of trial, defense counsel filed a supplemental motion in limine regarding Dr. Troy’s testimony and a related motion to quash. The issue this case presented for the Louisiana Supreme Court's review centered on the authority of the district attorney to dismiss and reinstitute criminal prosecutions. Because the actions of the state in this matter "so undermine the authority of the trial court that it offends bedrock principles of fundamental fairness and due process," the Court reversed. View "Louisiana vs. Reimonenq" on Justia Law

by
In February 2017, five-year-old N.H. reported to her grandfather that E.S. “has me put his missy in my mouth.” N.H.’s grandfather asked her to repeat herself, with which she complied, but otherwise he did not inquire further. According to N.H.’s grandfather, “missy” was the term N.H. used at the time to describe a person's genitalia. He repeated N.H.’s disclosure to N.H.’s mother who then reported the allegations to law enforcement. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted the writ in this matter primarily to address the constitutionality of mandatory lifetime sex offender registration under R.S. 15:5421 as applied to a juvenile. E.S. was ultimately adjudicated delinquent for the first degree rape of a child under the age of thirteen years old. Finding that there was insufficient evidence to determine E.S. was fourteen years old at the time of the offense, and therefore mandatory disposition pursuant to Ch. C. art. 897.13 and R.S. 15:542 was inapplicable to the case at hand, the Supreme Court affirmed the adjudication of first degree rape, reversed the court of appeal’s determination that there was sufficient evidence to establish E.S.’s age, vacated the disposition of the district court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Louisiana in the Interest of E.S." on Justia Law

by
A.N. was adjudicated delinquent for aggravated incest involving his sister, J.N. The petition charging A.N. alleged that J.N. was between ages seven and eleven, and that A.N. was between twelve and sixteen when the offending acts occurred. The investigation began in 2011 when J.N. submitted a poem she wrote for school expressing her anger at her older brother for molesting her. J.N.’s teacher passed the poem to a social worker who later confirmed with J.N. that she had been sexually abused by her brother. A.N. admitted that he and J.N. engaged in sexual acts but stated it was consensual. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted a writ in this matter primarily to address the constitutionality of mandatory lifetime sex offender registration as applied to a juvenile. Finding that A.N. did not have a right to file for post-conviction relief because he was not in custody at the time of his application, the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of A.N.’s post-conviction relief application by the juvenile court. Since A.N. was denied relief on the basis of custody, all remaining issues presented by his writ application, including whether R.S. 15:542 is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, were moot. View "Louisiana in the Interest of A.N." on Justia Law

by
Defendant Kelly Folse, a veterinarian, was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, and illegal use of a weapon, arising from the allegation she shot her neighbor’s dog in River Ridge. Defendant was arrested and her home was searched pursuant to arrest and search warrants. Her iPhone was seized at the time of her arrest. Access to the phone was locked by a passcode. Police obtained a search warrant to extract and examine the contents of the phone. At some point, she was informed that police had a search warrant for the phone but they would return it to her after she provided the passcode and they extracted a copy of its contents. However, the 10-day period provided in La.C.Cr.P. art. 163(C) had passed at that time. Under circumstances that were not well developed at the evidentiary hearing, defendant ultimately provided her passcode, her data was extracted, and her phone returned to her. Defendant moved to suppress the contents of the phone because the warrant had expired at the time the phone was searched. The district court found that the warrant could not be executed because the 10-day period provided in La.C.Cr.P. art. 163(C) had passed. However, because defendant, with the assistance of counsel, consented to the search by providing her passcode in exchange for the return of her phone, the district court denied defendant’s motion to suppress. The court of appeal held that defendant’s consent to search her phone was not free and voluntary because it was given only after an officer asserted that she had a warrant to search the phone. The Louisiana Supreme Court could not say after review of the trial court record, whether defendant merely acquiesced to a claim of lawful authority, or validly consented to provide her passcode in exchange for the phone. As such, the Court reversed the appellate court's order and remanded to the district court for further findings on whether evidence ought to be suppressed. View "Louisiana v. Folse" on Justia Law