Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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Under the Supreme Court’s “Baze-Glossip” test, a state’s refusal to alter its execution protocol can violate the Eighth Amendment only if an inmate identifies a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.” Missouri plans to execute Bucklew by lethal injection using a single drug, pentobarbital. Bucklew presented an as-applied Eighth Amendment challenge, alleging that, regardless whether the protocol would cause excruciating pain for all prisoners, it would cause him severe pain because of his particular medical condition. The Eighth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the rejection of Bucklew’s challenge. The Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death. To establish that a state’s chosen method cruelly “superadds” pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the state has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason. Traditionally accepted methods of execution are not necessarily unconstitutional because an arguably more humane method becomes available. Precedent forecloses Bucklew’s argument that methods posing a “substantial and particular risk of grave suffering” when applied to a particular inmate due to his “unique medical condition” should be considered “categorically” cruel. Identifying an available alternative is a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claims alleging cruel pain. Bucklew failed to present a triable question on the viability of nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative to Missouri’s protocol; he merely pointed to reports from other states indicating the need for additional study. Missouri had a “legitimate” interest in choosing not to be the first to experiment with a new, “untried and untested” method of execution. View "Bucklew v. Precythe" on Justia Law

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Under 8 U.S.C. 1226(a), the Secretary of Homeland Security generally has the discretion to arrest and hold a deportable alien pending a removal decision or to release the alien on bond or parole. Section 1226(c), enacted out of “concer[n] that deportable criminal aliens who are not detained continue to engage in crime and fail to appear,” sets out four categories of aliens who are inadmissible or deportable for bearing links to terrorism or for committing specified crimes; paragraph (1) directs the Secretary to arrest any such alien “when the alien is released” from jail, and paragraph (2) forbids the Secretary to release any “alien described in paragraph (1)” pending a removal determination. Aliens detained under 1226(c)(2), alleged that because they were not immediately detained by immigration officials after their release from criminal custody, they are not aliens “described in paragraph (1),” even though they fall into at least one of the four categories. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that the statute’s text does not support the argument that because the aliens were not arrested immediately after their release, they are not “described in” 1226(c)(1). Congress’s use of the definite article in “when the alien is released” indicates that the scope of the word “alien” “has been previously specified in context,” so the class of people to whom “the alien” refers must be fixed by the predicate offenses identified in subparagraphs (A)–(D). Paragraph (c)(2) does not limit mandatory detention to those arrested “pursuant to” or “under authority created by” (c)(1), but to anyone simply “described in” (c)(1). View "Nielsen v. Preap" on Justia Law

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In “Ford” the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing; in “Panetti,” the Court prohibited execution of a prisoner whose “mental state is so distorted by a mental illness” that he lacks a “rational understanding” of “the State’s rationale for [his] execution.” Madison was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He subsequently suffered several strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Madison sought a stay of execution, stressing that he could not recollect committing the crime. Alabama rejected his claim. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s grant of habeas relief, holding that neither Panetti nor Ford clearly established that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed simply because of failure to remember his crime but otherwise expressed no view on Madison’s competency. Alabama set an execution date; a state court again found Madison competent. The Supreme Court vacated. Under Ford and Panetti, execution may be permissible if the prisoner cannot remember committing his crime. Memory loss may, however, factor into the Panetti analysis to determine whether that loss interacts with other mental shortfalls to deprive a person of the capacity to comprehend why the state is exacting death as a punishment. The Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing a prisoner who suffers from dementia or another disorder rather than psychotic delusions. The Panetti standard focuses on whether a mental disorder has had a particular effect; not on establishing any precise cause. In evaluating competency, a judge must look beyond any given diagnosis to a downstream consequence. The Court remanded for renewed consideration of Madison’s competency by evaluation of whether he can reach a rational understanding of why the state wants to execute him. View "Madison v. Alabama" on Justia Law

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Garza signed plea agreements arising from state criminal charges, each containing a waiver of the right to appeal. Shortly after sentencing, Garza told his attorney that he wished to appeal. Counsel declined. After the time to preserve an appeal lapsed, Garza sought state postconviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Idaho courts rejected his claim, reasoning that the “Flores-Ortega” presumption of prejudice when trial counsel fails to file an appeal as instructed does not apply when the defendant has agreed to an appeal waiver. The Supreme Court reversed. Flores-Ortega’s presumption applies regardless of an appeal waiver. Under "Strickland," a defendant who claims ineffective assistance must prove that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that such deficiency was prejudicial. Prejudice is presumed in certain contexts, including when counsel’s deficient performance deprives a defendant of an appeal that he otherwise would have taken. No appeal waiver serves as an absolute bar to all appellate claims; a plea agreement is essentially a contract and does not bar claims outside its scope. A waived claim may proceed if the prosecution forfeits or waives the waiver or if the government breaches the agreement. Defendants retain the right to challenge whether the waiver was knowing and voluntary. Given the possibility that a defendant will raise claims beyond the waiver’s scope, simply filing a notice of appeal does not breach a plea agreement. Garza retained a right to appeal at least some issues and the presumption of prejudice does not bend because a particular defendant may have had poor prospects. Filing a notice of appeal is “a purely ministerial task that imposes no great burden on counsel” and the accused has ultimate authority to decide whether to appeal. View "Garza v. Idaho" on Justia Law

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Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. The police seized a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The state sought civil forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle, charging that it had been used to transport heroin. Observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction, the trial court denied that request. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated. The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which incorporates and renders applicable to the states Bill of Rights protections “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” or “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The Excessive Fines Clause carries forward protections found in sources from Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the colonial era to the present day. Excessive fines undermine other liberties. They can be used to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. In considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a Bill of Rights protection, the question is whether the right guaranteed—not every particular application of that right—is fundamental or deeply rooted. The Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated regardless of whether application of the Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted. View "Timbs v. Indiana" on Justia Law

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In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that Moore did not have an intellectual disability and was eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court vacated the decision. The appeals court reconsidered but reached the same conclusion in 2018. The Supreme Court again reversed, noting evidence that “Moore had significant mental and social difficulties beginning at an early age. At 13, Moore lacked basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year, and the seasons; he could scarcely tell time or comprehend the standards of measure or the basic principle that subtraction is the reverse of addition ... because of his limited ability to read and write, Moore could not keep up with lessons. … Moore’s father, teachers, and peers called him ‘stupid’ for his slow reading and speech. After failing every subject in the ninth grade, Moore dropped out of high school ... survived on the streets, eating from trash cans.” The court of appeal employed the correct legal criteria, examining: deficits in intellectual functioning—primarily a test-related criterion; adaptive deficits, “assessed using both clinical evaluation and individualized . . . measures”.; and the onset of these deficits while the defendant was still a minor. The court focused on adaptive deficits and found the state’s expert witness more credible and reliable than the other experts The Supreme Court held that the opinion repeated the analysis previously found improper; it relied, in part, on prison-based development, considered “emotional problems, ” and employed some “lay stereotypes of the intellectually disabled.” Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability. View "Moore v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Stokeling pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm and ammunition after having been convicted of a felony, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The probation office recommended the mandatory minimum 15-year prison term that the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides for 922(g) violators who have three previous convictions “for a violent felony.” Stokeling objected that his prior Florida robbery conviction was not a “violent felony,” which ACCA defines as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another,” section 924(e)(2)(B)(i). The Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court held that Stokeling qualified for the enhancement. ACCA’s elements clause encompasses a robbery offense that requires the defendant to overcome the victim’s resistance. The force necessary to overcome resistance by a victim is inherently “violent” in the sense contemplated by precedent and “suggest[s] a degree of power that would not be satisfied by the merest touching.” Stokeling’s suggested definition of “physical force” as force “reasonably expected to cause pain or injury” is inconsistent with the degree of force necessary to commit robbery at common law. The term “physical force” in ACCA encompasses the degree of force necessary to commit common-law robbery. View "Stokeling v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Sixth Circuit held that Hill, who was sentenced to death in 1986, was entitled to habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(1) because the decisions of the Ohio courts concluding that he is not intellectually disabled were contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent. The court relied on the 2017 Supreme Court decision, Moore v. Texas. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded so that Hill’s intellectual disability claim can be evaluated based solely on holdings that were clearly established at the relevant time. The Court rejected the Sixth Circuit reasoning “that Moore’s holding regarding adaptive strengths [was] merely an application of what was clearly established by” the Court’s 2002 decision, Atkins v. Virginia. In 2008, when the Ohio Court of Appeals rejected Hill’s claim, Atkins had not provided any comprehensive definition of “mental retardation” for Eighth Amendment purposes. While Atkins noted that standard definitions of mental retardation included as a necessary element “significant limitations in adaptive skills . . . that became manifest before age 18,” Atkins did not definitively resolve how that element was to be evaluated but instead left its application in the first instance to the states. The Moore majority primarily relied on medical literature that postdated the Ohio courts’ decisions. View "Shoop v. Hill" on Justia Law

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Defendants were each convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1); each was sentenced to the mandatory minimum 15-year prison term required by the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) for section 922(g)(1) offenders who have at least three previous convictions for certain “violent” or drug-related felonies. ACCA defines “violent felony” to include “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . that . . . is burglary,” section 924(e)(2)(B). Defendants’ prior convictions were for violations of statutes that prohibit burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation. The Courts of Appeals vacated both sentences. A unanimous Supreme Court held that the term “burglary” in ACCA includes burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation. Under the categorical approach, courts evaluate a prior state conviction based on the elements of the state offense, not the defendant’s behavior on a particular occasion. A prior state conviction does not qualify as generic burglary where those elements are broader than those of generic burglary: “an unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or other structure, with intent to commit a crime.” The Arkansas and Tennessee statutes satisfy those elements. When ACCA was passed, most state burglary statutes covered vehicles adapted or customarily used for lodging. Congress also viewed burglary as an inherently dangerous crime that “creates the possibility of a violent confrontation.” An offender who breaks into a mobile home, an RV, a camping tent, or another structure or vehicle that is adapted or customarily used for lodging creates a similar risk of violent confrontation. View "United States v. Stitt" on Justia Law

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Beaudreaux shot and killed Drummond in 2006. Esho and Crowder were witnesses. The next day, Crowder told the police that he knew the shooter from school, but did not know his name. Esho described the shooter, but did not know his name. Seventeen months later, Crowder was arrested for an unrelated crime. While Crowder was in custody, police showed him a middle-school yearbook with Beaudreaux’s picture and a photo lineup including Beaudreaux. Crowder identified Beaudreaux. Officers interviewed Esho the next day, showing him a display with a recent picture of Beaudreaux and pictures of five other men. Esho tentatively identified Beaudreaux, saying his picture “was ‘closest’ to the gunman.” Later that day, an officer found another photograph of Beaudreaux that was taken “closer to the date” of the shooting. Beaudreaux looked different in the two photographs. Hours after the first interview, officers showed Esho a second six-man photo lineup, with the older picture of Beaudreaux, in a different position in the lineup. Esho said that the second picture was “very close.” He again declined to positively state that Beaudreaux was the shooter. At a preliminary hearing, Esho identified Beaudreaux as the shooter. At trial, Esho explained that it “clicked” when he saw Beaudreaux in person based on “the way that he walked.” At no time did any investigator or prosecutor suggest to Esho that Beaudreaux was the one who shot Drummond. At trial, Esho and Crowder both identified Beaudreaux as Drummond’s shooter. The jury found Beaudreaux guilty. Beaudreaux’s conviction was affirmed. Beaudreaux's second state habeas petition claimed that his attorney was ineffective for failing to move to suppress Esho’s identification testimony. The California Court of Appeal summarily denied the petition; the California Supreme Court denied review. The Ninth Circuit reversed a denial of federal habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Supreme Court reversed. The Ninth Circuit did not consider reasonable grounds that could have supported the state court’s summary decision, and it analyzed Beaudreaux’s arguments without any meaningful deference to the state court. View "Sexton v. Beaudreaux" on Justia Law