Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
by
Haymond was convicted of possessing child pornography, which carries a prison term of zero to 10 years. After serving 38 months, while on supervised release, Haymond was found with what appeared to be child pornography. The government sought to revoke his supervised release and secure an additional prison sentence. A district judge, acting without a jury, found by a preponderance of the evidence that Haymond knowingly downloaded and possessed child pornography. Under 18 U.S.C. 3583(e)(3), the judge could have sentenced him to a prison term of zero to two additional years. Because possession of child pornography is a section 3583(k) enumerated offense, the judge instead imposed that provision’s five-year mandatory minimum. The Tenth Circuit vacated, finding section 3583(k) unconstitutional. The Supreme Court vacated. A plurality concluded that the application of section 3583(k) in this case violated Haymond’s right to trial by jury. A judge’s sentencing authority is limited by the jury’s factual findings of criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt. Based on the facts reflected in the jury’s verdict, Haymond faced a zero-10 year prison term, while the facts the judge found increased the legally prescribed range of allowable sentences. Rejecting an argument that Haymond’s sentence for violating his supervised release terms was authorized by the jury’s verdict because his supervised release was always subject to the possibility of judicial revocation and 3583(k)’s mandatory prison sentence, the justices stated the mandatory minimum five-year sentence becomes possible only as a result of additional judicial factual findings by a preponderance of the evidence. Unlike traditional parole or probation, section 3583(k) exposes a defendant to an additional prison term beyond that authorized by the jury’s verdict. The justices stated that the Tenth Circuit may address, on remand, whether declaring the last two sentences of section 3583(k) “unconstitutional and unenforceable” sweeps too broadly. View "United States v. Haymond" on Justia Law

by
Flowers was tried six times for the murder of four Mississippi furniture store employees. Flowers is black; three of the victims were white. At the first two trials, the prosecution used peremptory strikes on all qualified black prospective jurors. Two juries convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The convictions were reversed based on prosecutorial misconduct. At the third trial, the state used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed his conviction again, citing Batson v. Kentucky. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. At the sixth trial, the state exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. The trial court rejected a Batson objection, finding that the prosecution had offered race-neutral reasons. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court twice affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the peremptory strike of black prospective juror Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination is established, the state must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The judge then must determine whether the stated reasons were pretextual. The Batson Court rejected arguments that: a defendant must demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes to make establish race discrimination; a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption that the black juror would favor a black defendant; race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors are “equally” subject to race-based discrimination; and that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could employ them. The history of the state’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ earlier trials supports the conclusion that its sixth trial peremptory strikes were motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. The prosecution spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of five black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors. Wright was struck, the state claimed, in part because she knew several defense witnesses and had worked at Wal-Mart where Flowers’ father also worked; several white prospective jurors also knew individuals involved in the case or had relationships with members of Flowers’ family. The prosecution did not ask questions to explore those relationships. View "Flowers v. Mississippi" on Justia Law

by
Rehaif entered the United States on a nonimmigrant student visa to attend university but was dismissed for poor grades. He subsequently shot firearms at a firing range and was prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. 922(g), which makes it unlawful for certain persons, including aliens illegally in the country, to possess firearms, and section 924(a)(2), which provides that anyone who “knowingly violates” the first provision can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. The jury was instructed that the government was not required to prove that Rehalf knew that he was unlawfully in the country. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court reversed. In a prosecution under sections 922(g) and 924(a)(2), the government must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he belonged to the relevant category of persons barred from possessing a firearm. The Court noted a longstanding presumption that Congress intends to require a defendant to possess a culpable mental state regarding each statutory element that criminalizes otherwise innocent conduct. The statutory text supports the application of presumption requiring "scienter." The term “knowingly” is normally read as applying to all the subsequently listed elements of the crime and clearly applies to section 922(g)’s second element, possession. There is no basis for interpreting “knowingly” as applying to the second element but not the first (status). Possessing a gun can be an innocent act; it is the defendant’s status that makes a difference. Without knowledge of that status, a defendant may lack the intent needed to make his behavior wrongful. Rehaif’s status as an alien “illegally or unlawfully in the United States” is a “collateral” question of law and a mistake regarding that status negates an element of the offense. View "Rehaif v. United States" on Justia Law

by
McDonough processed ballots as a board of elections commissioner in a Troy, New York primary election. Smith was specially appointed to investigate and to prosecute a case of forged absentee ballots in that election. McDonough alleges that Smith fabricated evidence against him and used it to secure an indictment and at two trials before McDonough’s December 21, 2012 acquittal. On December 18, 2015, McDonough sued Smith under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserting fabrication of evidence. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit as untimely under a three-year limitations period. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute of limitations began to run when the criminal proceedings against McDonough terminated in his favor—when he was acquitted at the end of his second trial. An accrual analysis begins with identifying the specific constitutional right at issue--here, an assumed due process right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of a government official’s fabrication of evidence. Accrual questions are often decided by referring to common-law principles governing analogous torts. The most analogous common-law tort is malicious prosecution, which accrues only once the underlying criminal proceedings have resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. McDonough could not bring his section 1983 fabricated-evidence claim before favorable termination of his prosecution. The Court cited concerns with avoiding parallel litigation and conflicting judgments and that prosecutions regularly last nearly as long as—or even longer than—the limitations period. View "McDonough v. Smith" on Justia Law

by
The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), intended to combat sex crimes and crimes against children, requires a broad range of sex offenders to register and imposes criminal penalties; 34 U.S.C. 20913 describes the “[i]nitial registration” requirements. Under subsection (b)'s general rule an offender must register “before completing a sentence of imprisonment with respect to the offense giving rise to the registration requirement.” Subsection (d) provides that the Attorney General “shall have the authority” to “specify the applicability” of SORNA’s registration requirements to pre-Act offenders and “to prescribe rules for [their] registration.” The Attorney General issued a rule that SORNA’s registration requirements apply in full to pre-SORNA offenders. The district court and the Second Circuit rejected a claim by a pre-SORNA offender that subsection (d) unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. The Supreme Court affirmed. Four justices concluded that section 20913(d) does not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Congress may confer substantial discretion on executive agencies to implement and enforce the laws as long as Congress “lay[s] down by legislative act an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to [exercise that authority] is directed to conform.” The Supreme Court has already interpreted 20913(d) to require the Attorney General to apply SORNA to all pre-Act offenders as soon as feasible. To “specify the applicability” does not mean “specify whether to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders but means “specify how to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders; no Attorney General has used section20913(d) in any more expansive way. Section 20913(d)’s delegation falls within constitutional bounds. View "Gundy v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Gamble pleaded guilty under Alabama’s felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm statute. Federal prosecutors then indicted him for the same instance of possession under federal law. Gamble argued that the federal indictment was for “the same offence” as the one at issue in his state conviction, exposing him to double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of his motion, invoking the dual-sovereignty doctrine, according to which two offenses “are not the ‘same offence’ ” for double jeopardy purposes if “prosecuted by different sovereigns.” The dual sovereignty doctrine is not an exception to the double jeopardy right but follows from the Fifth Amendment’s text. As originally understood, an “offence” is defined by a law, and each law is defined by a sovereign. Where there are two sovereigns, there are two laws and two “offences.” The Court stated that “Gamble’s historical evidence is too feeble to break the chain of precedent linking dozens of cases over 170 years.” View "Gamble v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Quarles pled guilty as a felon in possession of a firearm but objected to enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. 924(e). He claimed that his 2002 Michigan conviction for third-degree home invasion did not qualify as a "violent felony," defined by section 924(e) to include “burglary.” The generic statutory term “burglary” means “unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” Quarles argued that Michigan’s statute, which applies when a person “breaks and enters a dwelling or enters a dwelling without permission and, at any time while ... entering, present in, or exiting the dwelling, commits a misdemeanor,” swept too broadly by encompassing situations where the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time while unlawfully remaining in a dwelling, while generic remaining-in burglary occurs only when the defendant has the intent to commit a crime at the exact moment when he first unlawfully remains in a building or structure. The district court, Sixth Circuit, and a unanimous Supreme Court rejected that argument. Generic remaining-in burglary occurs when the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time while unlawfully remaining in a building or structure. In ordinary usage, “remaining-in” is a continuous activity, so burglary occurs if the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time during the continuous event of unlawfully remaining in a building or structure. Congress singled out burglary because of its inherent potential for harm to persons; the possibility of a violent confrontation does not depend on the exact moment when the burglar forms the intent to commit a crime while unlawfully present in a building or structure. Michigan’s home-invasion statute substantially corresponds to or is narrower than generic burglary. View "Quarles v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Mont had a five-year federal term of supervised release, scheduled to end on March 6, 2017. In June 2016, he was arrested on state drug trafficking charges. In October 2016, Mont pleaded guilty to state charges. He then admitted in a federal court filing that he violated his supervised-release conditions by virtue of the new state convictions. The district court rescheduled his hearing several times to allow the state court to first sentence Mont. On March 21, 2017, Mont was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. His 10 months of pretrial custody were credited as time served. On March 30, the district court set a supervised-release hearing. Mont unsuccessfully challenged the court’s jurisdiction, arguing that his supervised release had expired on March 6. The court ordered him to serve an additional 42 months’ imprisonment consecutive to his state sentence. The Sixth Circuit and Supreme court affirmed, citing 18 U.S.C. 3624(e), which provides that a “term of supervised release does not run during any period in which the person is imprisoned in connection with a conviction for a . . . crime unless the imprisonment is for a period of less than 30 consecutive days.” Pretrial detention later credited as time served for a new conviction is "imprisonment in connection with a conviction" and tolls the supervised-release term, even if the court must make the tolling calculation after learning whether the time will be credited. The Court noted that there is no reason to give a defendant the windfall of satisfying a new sentence of imprisonment and an old sentence of supervised release with the same period of pretrial detention. The defendant need not be supervised when he is in custody; there is nothing unfair about the defendant not knowing during pretrial detention whether he is also under supervised release. View "Mont v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Bartlett was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during a winter sports festival held in Alaska. Officer Nieves claimed he was speaking with a group when a seemingly-intoxicated Bartlett started shouting not to talk to the police. When Nieves approached him, Bartlett began yelling at the officer to leave. Nieves left. Bartlett claims that he was not drunk and did not yell at Nieves. Minutes later, Trooper Weight claimed, Bartlett approached him in an aggressive manner while he was questioning a minor, stood between Weight and the teenager, and yelled with slurred speech that Weight should not speak with the minor. When Bartlett stepped toward Weight, the officer pushed him back. Nieves initiated an arrest. When Bartlett was slow to comply, the officers forced him to the ground. Bartlett denies being aggressive and claims that he was slow because of a back injury. Bartlett claims that Nieves said, “bet you wish you would have talked to me.” Bartlett sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the arrest was retaliation for his speech. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit: Because there was probable cause to arrest Bartlett, his retaliatory arrest claim failed as a matter of law. Plaintiffs in retaliatory prosecution cases must prove that the decision to press charges was objectively unreasonable because it was not supported by probable cause. First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims are subject to the same no-probable-cause requirement. The inquiry is complex because protected speech is often a “wholly legitimate consideration” for officers when deciding whether to make an arrest. A purely subjective approach would compromise the even-handed application of the law and would encourage officers to minimize communication during arrests. The common law torts of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, in existence at the time of 42 U.S.C. 1983’s enactment suggest that the presence of probable cause should generally defeat a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. The no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been. View "Nieves v. Bartlett" on Justia Law

by
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