A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed

Earlier this month, in Dean v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that federal sentencing judges retain some discretion to soften the notoriously draconian sentencing scheme of 18 U.S.C. §924(c). The statute establishes a mandatory prison term when a defendant uses or possesses a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. Unlike most minimums, though, this one must be imposed to run consecutively with any other sentences imposed at the same time. Thus, for instance, a defendant convicted of both a robbery and possession of a firearm during the robbery must get at least five years on top of whatever sentence is ordered for the robbery.

But what if a judge—in light of all of the facts of the case and the circumstances of the defendant—decides that five years is a sufficient punishment for the crime? Could the judge impose a sentence of just one day on the robbery count, so that the total sentence does not exceed what is necessary? In other words, in sentencing for the robbery count, can the judge take into consideration what she will have to impose for the §924(c) count?

Yes, said the Supreme Court in Dean.   Continue reading “A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed”

Supreme Court Permits Some Light Into the Black Box of Jury Deliberations

Jury deliberations are the proverbial black box. After passively receiving the law, evidence, and arguments at a trial, the jurors will retire to discuss the case in secret. When they return with a verdict, no explanation will be required for their decision. Afterward, the jurors will normally be instructed that they need discuss the case with no one. The parties are left to wonder how well the jurors understood the governing law, attended to the key evidence, and faithfully attempted to apply the former to the latter.

Occasionally, the public catches some glimpse of what happens inside the black box. But when this happens, the law’s typical response echoes the famous admonition of the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” This position is reflected in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which generally prohibits jurors from testifying about their deliberations and thought processes when the validity of a verdict is challenged.

Although it seems perfectly sensible to discourage losing litigants from harassing jurors in the hope of uncovering errors, it is not so clear that the system benefits when judges are required to turn a blind eye to substantial evidence that a jury’s decisionmaking went off the rails.  Continue reading “Supreme Court Permits Some Light Into the Black Box of Jury Deliberations”

Rodriguez v. United States: Supreme Court Says No to Prolonged Traffic Stops

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court decided City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the fourth and final of its search-and-seizure cases this term. In Patel, the Court overturned a city ordinance requiring hotel operators to share information about their guests with the police.

Patel confirmed this as a good term for Fourth Amendment rights, joining Grady v. North Carolina (GPS tracking of sex offender counted as search for Fourth-Amendment purposes) and Rodriguez v. United States (police improperly extended traffic stop to conduct dog sniff of car). Less favorable, though, was Heien v. North Carolina (no suppression of evidence obtained after traffic stop that was based on officer’s reasonable mistake of law).

The remainder of this post will focus on Rodriguez, which strikes me as the most interesting of the Fourth-Amendment series. Broadly speaking, at issue was the extent to which the police can go on a fishing expedition when they pull over a driver for a traffic violation.   Continue reading “Rodriguez v. United States: Supreme Court Says No to Prolonged Traffic Stops”

Ohio v. Clark: The Supreme Court’s Latest Pronouncement on the Confrontation Clause

By guaranteeing criminal defendants the right to confront their accusers, the Sixth Amendment limits the ability of the government to use hearsay evidence against defendants at trial.  Importantly, though, the Confrontation Clause only limits the use of statements that are “testimonial” in nature.  A pair of Supreme Court cases from 2006 clarified what makes a statement testimonial, but left an important question unanswered.  Last week, the Court finally provided an answer (sort of) in Ohio v. Clark.

Clark featured an unusually unsympathetic defendant who was convicted of physically abusing his girlfriend’s two very young children.   Continue reading “Ohio v. Clark: The Supreme Court’s Latest Pronouncement on the Confrontation Clause”

Elonis v. United States: SCOTUS Again Adopts Narrowing Construction of Criminal Statute

As I noted in my post last week, the Supreme Court has a variety of interpretive tools at its disposal to rein in the ever-expanding reach of federal criminal law.  Right on cue, the Court demonstrated the use of one of these tools this week in Elonis v. United States.  

Elonis, a self-styled rapper, posted a variety of lyrics with violent themes on his Facebook page.  Some of these lyrics related to his wife, some to coworkers, and some to law-enforcement personnel, among others.  Elonis was eventually convicted under 18 U.S.C. §875(c), which prohibits individuals from transmitting in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.”

The Supreme Court reversed, ruling that Elonis’s jury had been improperly instructed.

Continue reading “Elonis v. United States: SCOTUS Again Adopts Narrowing Construction of Criminal Statute”

Yates v. United States: Overcoming Plain Meaning

As we enter the home stretch of the Supreme Court term, I have been reviewing the criminal cases already decided by the Court this year. For my money, the most interesting is Yates v. United States, which presents a classic statutory interpretation problem. This was the fish case that got a fair amount of whimsical press coverage when it came out. Even the Justices proved incapable of avoiding fish puns in their opinions, but I’ll do my best not to get caught in that net. (Oops.)

Yates captained a commercial fishing vessel that was catching undersized grouper in violation of federal law. Following an inspection, some of the illegal catch was thrown back into the sea on Yates’s orders, presumably to avoid penalties. Yates was eventually convicted under 18 U.S.C. §1519, which authorizes a prison term of up to twenty years for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States . . . or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter.”

Continue reading “Yates v. United States: Overcoming Plain Meaning”

“With Friends Like These . . .”: New Critiques of Graham and Miller

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012) undoubtedly constitute the most important developments in Eighth Amendment law over the past decade.  Graham banned life-without -parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses, while Miller prohibited mandatory LWOP for all juvenile offenders, even those convicted of murder.  I have a lengthy analysis of the two decisions in this recently published article.

A special issue of the New Criminal Law Review now offers a pair of interesting critiques of Graham and Miller.  Interestingly, both authors seem sympathetic to the bottom-line holdings of the two decisions, but they nonetheless disagree with central aspects of the Court’s reasoning (and, to some extent, also with one another).  Both focus their criticisms on the Court’s use of scientific evidence regarding the differences between adolescent and adult brain functioning.

The more radical perspective comes from Mark Fondacaro, a psychologist who has emerged as a leading critic of retributive responses to crime and advocate for scientifically informed risk-management strategies.   Continue reading ““With Friends Like These . . .”: New Critiques of Graham and Miller”

Final Version of Eighth Amendment Article Now Available

The Missouri Law Review has now published the final version of my article, “Not Just Kid Stuff? Extending Graham and Miller to Adults.”  Here is the abstract:

The United States Supreme Court has recently recognized new constitutional limitations on the use of life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders, but has not clearly indicated whether analogous limitations apply to the sentencing of adults. However, the Court’s treatment of LWOP as a qualitatively different and intrinsically more troubling punishment than any other sentence of incarceration does provide a plausible basis for adults to challenge their LWOP sentences, particularly when they have been imposed for nonviolent offenses or on a mandatory basis. At the same time, the Court’s Eighth Amendment reasoning suggests some reluctance to overturn sentencing practices that are in widespread use or otherwise seem to reflect deliberate, majoritarian decisionmaking. This Essay thus suggests a balancing test of sorts that may help to account for the Court’s varied Eighth Amendment decisions in noncapital cases since 1991. The Essay concludes by considering how this balancing approach might apply to the mandatory LWOP sentence established by 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A) for repeat drug offenders.

The citation is 78 Mo. L. Rev. 1087 (2013).

SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: The Constitutional Cases

In my previous post, I discussed the Court’s recent Fourth Amendment decisions.  Here are this term’s other criminal cases that also center on constitutional issues (excluding habeas decisions):

  • Kansas v. Cheever, 571 U.S. __ (2013) (prosecutors could use testimony based on court-ordered mental examination of defendant in order to rebut defendant’s intoxication defense).
  • Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. __ (2014) (in capital case, state may not categorically limit intellectual disability defense to individuals with an IQ score of 70 or lower — see my earlier post here).
  • Kaley v. United States, 571 U.S. __ (2014) (when trying to overturn pretrial asset freeze affecting funds to be used for legal representation, defendant may not challenge grand jury’s probable cause determination).
  • Martinez v. Illinois, 572 U.S. __ (2014) (after jury empaneled and sworn, judge’s grant of defendant’s motion for “directed findings of not guilty” counted as acquittal for double jeopardy purposes and precluded appeal by state).

A notable recurring theme across this set of decisions is the Court’s desire to maintain a particular competitive balance at criminal trials.

Continue reading “SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: The Constitutional Cases”

SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Fourth Amendment Cases

On the criminal side of the Court’s docket, I found this term’s statutory interpretation cases more interesting than the constitutional cases.  In the latter category, the Fourth Amendment decisions were probably the most significant.  They were:

  • Fernandez v. California, 571 U.S. __ (2014) (police permissibly conducted warrantless consent search of home notwithstanding objection of one occupant).
  • Prado Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. __ (2014) (anonymous 911 call sufficiently justified stop of vehicle).
  • Riley v. California, 573 U.S. __ (2014) (warrant required for search of arrestee’s cell phone).

In reviewing these three cases, I think the most intriguing comparison is between Fernandez and Riley.  The two decisions serve to highlight apparent inconsistencies in the Court’s stance toward search warrants. Continue reading “SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Fourth Amendment Cases”