Right to Counsel: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

As part of its end-of-term flurry, the U.S. Supreme Court issued three notable decisions in the past week on the criminal defendant’s right to effective assistance of counsel. The results were a mixed bag.

First, the step forward: in Lee v. United States, the Court strengthened the defendant’s right to accurate legal advice in relation to plea bargaining. Lee, a South Korean who resided lawfully in the U.S. for more than three decades, faced a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. His attorney advised him that he would likely get a lighter sentence if he pleaded guilty, but Lee was concerned that he would be deported if convicted; deportation, not prison, seems to have been his primary concern. Lee’s lawyer assured him that he would not be deported, so Lee agreed to the guilty plea. However, the lawyer was wrong — Lee faced mandatory deportation as a result of his conviction. When Lee found out, he sought to withdraw his guilty plea on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The lower courts rejected his motion. For Lee to show a violation of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, he was required to demonstrate both deficient performance by this attorney and prejudice. The lower courts seemed to accept that Lee’s lawyer performed poorly, but held that Lee could show no prejudice since he had no viable defense if the case had gone to trial. In other words, even with better information, Lee would have been convicted and deported anyway.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that prejudice can be established in some cases based on the lost opportunity to have a trial, without regard to the likely outcome of that trial.  Continue reading “Right to Counsel: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”

Supreme Court Dodges Long-Running Dispute Over Defendant’s Right to Psychiatric Expert

Three decades ago, in Ake v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court held that indigent criminal defendants have a constitutional right of access to a psychiatric expert in some cases. More specifically, the Court stated, “[W]hen a defendant demonstrates to the trial judge that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant factor at trial, the State must, at a minimum, assure the defendant access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” 470 U.S. 68, 83 (1985).

This seemingly straightforward holding has spawned a number of long-running disputes in the lower courts. Among the more important lingering questions is this: May a state satisfy its obligation under Ake by supplying the defendant with access to a neutral expert who is equally available to both sides, or must the state engage an expert who will truly serve as a member of the defense team? Of course, a wealthy defendant would almost always be well-advised to hire his own expert, rather than merely relying on a neutral, but Ake does not necessarily guarantee that poor defendants will have all of the advantages of their rich counterparts.

With the lower courts split on this question, the Supreme Court finally seemed poised to provide a definitive answer this term in McWilliams v. Dunn. Continue reading “Supreme Court Dodges Long-Running Dispute Over Defendant’s Right to Psychiatric Expert”

Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles given a life sentence for nonhomicide crimes must be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” But what makes a release opportunity “meaningful”? The Court’s decision earlier today in Virginia v. LeBlanc suggests that the threshold may not be as high as some hoped.

LeBlanc was convicted of committing a rape when he was 16 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of conventional parole. On the face of it, this would seem a clear violation of Graham. However, in federal habeas proceedings, the state argued that LeBlanc would have his “meaningful opportunity” through a geriatric release program, which permits the release of some inmates who are age sixty or older.

Since many other states also have geriatric release programs, the issue presented by LeBlanc has important, national ramifications for the strength of the Eighth Amendment right recognized in Graham.

A district judge and then a panel of the Fourth Circuit held in LeBlanc’s favor. The Fourth Circuit noted the highly discretionary nature of the geriatric release decision under Virginia law, which effectively permitted the releasing authority to disregard an applicant’s “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” contrary to Graham. 841 F.3d 256, 269 (4th Cir. 2016).

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed today in a brief per curiam opinion.   Continue reading “Dark Clouds on the Horizon for Graham v. Florida?”

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”