Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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