Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Can a trial judge prohibit defendants (and spectators) from wearing "Black Lives Matter" shirts?

The trial judge in Massachusetts set to preside over the prosecution of four Black Lives Matter protesters has reportedly told the defendants that they cannot wear shirts with those words - - - Black Lives Matter - - - during the trial.  Apparently at a pretrial hearing, the judge noticed one of the defendants wearing attire with the words and stated:

"Is that appropriate to wear in front of a jury? Why isn't that unfair to the commonwealth? You're asking me to ferret out jurors who are not fair ... I'm not going to allow clothing with that message."

ShirtWhile judges have a great deal of discretion in the courtroom, the courtroom is not without First Amendment protections, even when it comes to the symbolic expression of attire.  However, most of the cases involving defendant attire have been about protecting the defendant's right to a fair trial rather than any right of the government's.  A quintet of cases from the United States Supreme Court - - - Illinois v. Allen (1973), Estelle v. Williams (1976), Holbrook v. Flynn (1986), Deck v. Missouri (2005), and Carey v. Musladin (2006) - - - considered various aspects of "attire" during trial.  In Allen, it was the possibility of the shackling and gagging the defendant,  in Williams it was the defendant's "prison garb," in Holbrook v. Flynn it was uniformed guards in the courtroom, in Deck it was shackling the defendant,  and in Musladin it was the defendant's objection to spectators' wearing buttons with the victim's photograph.   

The rights of court spectators to First Amendment expressions is not well-established.  Justice Souter concurred in Musladin mentioning the possibility of such a right, but contended that trial judges had affirmative obligations to ensure a fair trial, including regulating the attire of spectators. But what if the spectators support the defendant?  Some judges have prohibited supportive attire.  For example, in 2013 an Indiana judge prohibited spectators from wearing buttons supporting Bei Bei Shuai, on trial for unsuccessful suicide attempt that resulted in a miscarriage.  And last year, a judge banned spectators from wearing pink hands pinned to their shirts in support of Cecily McMillan for assaulting a police officer who she said had grabbed her breast.  

As to the defendants, they risk being held in contempt if they do wear the prohibited clothing.  Perhaps the most famous case involved the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial.

But the First Amendment principle is preserved whether or not the defendants comply with the judge's order about their expressive attire.  Prohibiting defendants from wearing non-obscene words that support their political viewpoints certainly raises a First Amendment issue of viewpoint and content discrimination.

[image via; video with defendant and shirt here]

November 11, 2015 in Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Race | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Court Hears Oral Arguments in Batson Challenge to Death Sentence

The Court heard oral arguments today in Foster v. Humphrey regarding a challenge to a 1987 conviction and death sentence by an all-white Georgia jury based on  Batson v. Kentucky (1986) applying equal protection principles to peremptory challenges in jury selection.

A seemingly new issue on the case involved whether or not the United States Supreme Court should be hearing the case at all.  While the Court granted certiorari to the Georgia Supreme Court (as we discussed and as the petition requested), the problem is that the Georgia Supreme Court had denied review . . . . for reasons that are unclear.  Was it discretionary? Was that discretion bounded?  Did the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of review for lack of a meritorous claim constitute a decision on the merits?  And even more complexly, did the Georgia state courts have an adequate and independent state ground - - - res judicata - - - under Michigan v. Long (1983)?  (Beth Burton, the attorney for Georgia seemed to concede this was not the case.)  And to add yet another layer of complexity, even if the United States Supreme Court decided it should review the matter, what exactly should it review? As Chief Justice Roberts asked, "In other words, are we addressing just whether there's arguable merit to the claim or are we addressing the claim on its own merits?"

On the merits of the Batson claim, the problem arises from the "smoking gun" of prosecutorial notes singling out the Black potential jurors in the case.  Although Steve Bright, attorney for Foster suggested that there was "an arsenal of smoking guns" here, Justice Scalia suggested that Foster had to "establish [in order ] to reverse the Georgia courts is that the new smoking gun, assuming that all the rest were not enough to demonstrate a Batson violation ­­ the new smoking guns would tip the scale."  Justice Kagan seemed to see it differently, suggesting to Beth Burton, the Georgia Deputy Attorney, that this was a clear Batson violation:

You have a lot of new information here from these files that suggests that what the prosecutors were doing was looking at the African-­American prospective jurors as a group, that they had basically said, we don't want any of these people.  Here is the one we want if we really have to take one.  But that there ­­ all the evidence suggests a kind of singling out, which is the very antithesis of the Batson rule.

Burton initially suggested that the prosecutors' notes highlighting Black jurors was that the prosecutor was preparing for a Batson challenge.  Justice Breyer expressed some incredulity at this based on the fact that prosecutors never previously advanced such a reason.  Justice Breyer also seemingly expressed incredulity at the prosecutors' argument that there were "40 different reasons" - - - other than race - - - meant that one was truly valid, rather than drawing an inference from the sheer number of reasons that they were invalid. 

Justice Kennedy, perhaps the decisive vote, seemed convinced the prosecutors committed a Batson violation: "They've ­­ - - - they've made a mistake - - - ­­ they've made a mistake of - - -­­ in Batson."  But Justice Kennedy was also quite vocal in pressing the attorneys on the procedural issue, which could be an escape hatch for the Court in what could prove to be a difficult case.




November 2, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Equal Protection, Fourteenth Amendment, Oral Argument Analysis, Race, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ninth Circuit on Unconscious Bias, Equal Protection, and Batson

A divided Ninth Circuit panel has affirmed the district judge in granting habeas corpus and vacating a death sentence in its opinion in Crittenden v. Chappell.

Crittenden's claimed the prosecutor at trial excluded an African-American prospective juror on account of her race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted in Batson v. Kentucky (1986). The Ninth Circuit had previously clarified that the peremptory challenge at issue need not be motivated solely by race, but only “motivated in substantial part” by race, “regardless of whether the strike would have issued if race had played no role.” On remand, the district judge found that the prosecutor was substantially motivated by race.

Lady-justice-juryWhile there are several issues in the case, including deference, appellate procedure, and retroactivity, the issue of "intent" under equal protection doctrine in the Batson context was central. The district judge's opinion engaged in specific comparisons regarding jurors and also stated "[t]he [side-by-side juror] comparisons demonstrate that . . . [the prosecutor] was motivated, consciously or unconsciously, in substantial part by race."   The relevance of "unconsciously" was a division among the Circuit judges.  For the majority, this was a "passing comment" in the district judge's opinion, and "all the court meant was, whatever the explanation for the prosecutor’s racial motive, that motive was a substantial reason for his use of a peremptory strike." (emphasis in original).  The majority added, "In other words, why the prosecutor had a conscious racial motive to strike [the potential juror] Casey in the first place – whether or not 'unconscious racism' partly explained that motive – was simply irrelevant to the Batson inquiry."  It interestingly added this footnote:

It was relevant, of course, to the prosecutor’s reputation. The district court’s reference to “unconscious racism” spared him from being found a racist. By suggesting the prosecutor may have had more benign racial motives for the strike, or that his racial motive may have been influenced by unconscious racism, the court hoped to shield the prosecutor from possible disrepute. As the court made clear, however, this effort was not designed to – and did not – detract from the court’s key finding that the strike was consciously motivated by race.

Thus, because the majority upheld the district court’s finding of a conscious racial motive, "we do not – and need not – address whether unconscious bias can establish a Batson violation."

Judge Margaret McKeown dissented from the opinion authored by Judge Raymond Fisher and joined by Judge Marsha Berzon, arguing that there needed to be a clearer indication of discriminatory purpose:

The remaining question is whether, in striking [the potential juror] Casey, the prosecutor had a discriminatory purpose. “‘Discriminatory purpose’ . . . implies more than intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences. It implies that the decisionmaker . . . selected . . . a particular course of action at least in part ‘because of,’ not merely ‘in spite of,’ its adverse effects upon an identifiable group.” Hernandez v. New York (1991) (plurality) (quoting Person. Admin. of Mass. v. Feeney,  (1979)). The touchstone, as described in our caselaw, is whether race was a “substantial motivating factor” in the prosecutor’s decision to strike Casey.

(ellipses in original).  For dissenting judge McKeown, the burden was on the defendant to prove purposeful discrimination and he failed to do so. She added,

This case calls to mind Justice Breyer’s observation that the Batson inquiry can be an “awkward, sometime hopeless, task of second-guessing a prosecutor’s instinctive judgment—the underlying basis for which may be invisible even to the prosecutor exercising the challenge.” Miller-El v. Dretke (2005) (Breyer, J., concurring). In view of the record of what actually happened, the trial judge’s findings and the ultimate composition of the jury, our retrospective parsing simply cannot elevate ambiguous, speculative foundation to proof that the prosecutor was motivated in substantial part by racism.

The problem of the degree of proof of intent in equal protection claims generally and Batson specifically has vexed the courts.  Recall that the United States Supreme Court will be taking another look at equal protection doctrine under Batson this term in Foster v. Humphrey; the lower court had held that  merely because the prosecutor's notes and records revealed "that the race" - - - meaning Black - - - "of prospective jurors was either circled, highlighted or otherwise noted on various lists" did not establish purposeful discrimination. 

October 27, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Equal Protection, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Court Grants Review of Bias of Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice in Death Penalty Case

The Court has granted certiorari in Williams v. Pennsylvania on issues of due process and the Eighth Amendment revolving around former Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ronald Castille (pictured). 


Castille, who retired from the court when he reached the state mandatory retirement age, was elected in 1993, and retained in elections in 2003 and 2013.  Importantly, before his election to the bench, Castille worked in the district attorney's office for over 20 years, including being twice elected to the District Attorney position; he reportedly claimed to have "sent 45 people to death row."

One of those people on death row is Terrence Williams, the petitioner in Williams v. Pennyslvania.  Williams claims that it was a violation of due process and the Eighth Amendment for Justice Castille to deny the motion to recuse himself from consideration of Williams' petition for post conviction relief.  Williams contends that Castille, as a prosecutor, was personally involved in the case and the decision to seek the death penalty.  Williams' claim, moreover, is based on prosecutorial misconduct. 

Williams relies on Caperton v. Massey (2009) regarding judicial bias. Unlike the situation of Justice Benjamin in Caperton, Castille did not cast a "deciding vote" on the court.  [Nevertheless, Castille's concurring opinion is worth reading for its defensiveness].  Recognizing this distinction, Williams also relies on Atena Life Insurance v. Lavoie (1986), and notes there is a circuit split regarding bias when the biased decided is only one member of a multi-member tribunal.

October 1, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Second Circuit Grants Standing to Challenge NY's Criminalization of "Gravity Knives"

A gravity knife is “any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device,” according to New York Penal Law §265.00 (5).  It is clear that having one is criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor punishable by no more than one year in prison.  It is less clear, at least according to the plaintiffs in Knife Rights, Inc. v. Vance, exactly what a gravity knife is: what if a person possesses a "common folding knife" that he is unable to open with a "wrist flick," but that someone else (presumably more talented) can open with a "wrist flick."? 

The Second Circuit's opinion in Knife Rights, Inc. v. Vance, however, is concerned not with the due process challenge to the New York law, but the Article III standing of the plaintiffs seeking to challenge it. 

circa 1613 via

Almost two years after the district judge's opinion dismissing all plaintiffs, the Second Circuit has affirmed the lack of standing of the organizational plaintiffs, Knife Rights and Knife Rights Foundation, but reversed as to the individual plaintiffs, Copeland and Perez, as well as Native Leather, a retail knife store.

In applying the well-established test for Article III standing - - -(1)  ‘injury in fact,’ (2) a sufficient ‘causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of,’ and (3) a ‘likelihood that the injury ‘will be redressed by a favorable decision.’ - - - the Second Circuit disagreed with the district judge that the plaintiffs had not established an injury in fact. 

Indeed, the three individual plaintiffs had been prosecuted under the statute.  Copeland and Perez, an artist and an art dealer, both carry knives for their work.  Perez was stopped by law enforcement in 2010 in Manhattan for a

metal clip protruding from his pocket. Inquiry revealed the clip to be part of a Gerber brand common folding knife that Perez had purchased approximately two years earlier at Tent & Trail, an outdoor supply store in Manhattan. Plaintiffs assert that the charging officers were unable themselves to flick open Perez’s knife, but based on the possibility that someone could do so, they issued Perez a desk appearance ticket charging him with unlawful possession of a gravity knife.

Copeland was similarly stopped in 2010, but although he had previously shown his knife to NYC police officers to inquire about the legality of its possession and those officers were "unable to flick open the knife and so returned it to Copeland, advising that its possession was legal," when he was stopped, the officers were "able to open the knife by “grasping the knife’s handle and forcefully ‘flicking’ the knife body downwards” and, thus, issued Copeland a desk appearance ticket for violating the statute.

As to the store, Native Leather, it had entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with District Attorney Vance, which included the payment of fines and a "compliance program" to stop selling "gravity knives."

The Second Circuit easily found that the plaintiffs' alleged an imminent threat of prosecution.  The court rightly distinguished the controversial case of City of Los Angeles v. Lyons (1983) involving the police practice of choke-holds, by noting that the plaintiffs here seek to engage in the very conduct that is being subjected to criminalization.  The court denied the organization's standing by concluding that its monetary injury incurred by supporting persons prosecuted under the statute would not be adequately redressed by the injunctive relief sought in the complaint.  (The district court had denied leave to amend, which the Second Circuit affirmed).

The plaintiffs ability to move forward with the merits of their challenge to the New York statute criminalizing specific - - - or as alleged, not sufficiently specific - - - knives seems long overdue. 

September 22, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Federal Judge Finds Arrest for Obscenity Violates First Amendment - - - and Denies Prosecutorial Immunity

In her decision from the bench in Barboza v. D'Agata, federal district judge Cathy Seibel has not only found that the arrest of William Barboza violated the First Amendment but has granted summary judgment against a state prosecutor for a First Amendment violation and allowed a claim against the village to proceed.

0b0d6031e6e41dfbaf5986c2c98f3915After Barboza received a speeding ticket from Liberty, New York, he not only paid the fine but returned the form with "Liberty" in "Liberty Town Court" crossed off and replaced with "tyranny" and with the phrase "fuck your shitty town bitches" written in all caps and underlined.  (photo here).  An assistant district attorney, Robert Zangala, made a decision that the statement constituted "aggravated harassment" under NY Penal Law 240.30 (1) (a). While New York courts had rejected facial challenges to the subsection,  New York's highest court had found the statute unconstitutional as applied in a 2003 case in which the defendant had "left five voice messages on the Village of Ossining Parking Violations Bureau's answering machine in which the defendant rained invective on two village employees, wished them and their family ill health, and complained of their job performance as well as the tickets that she had received."  Judge Seibel found that decision was "on all fours" with the present case.

Importantly, the prosecutor not only charged Barboza, but participated in the plan to arrest Barboza when he came to court about the speeding ticket; a judge having ordered Barboza to appear. While Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to charge Barboza, he was not entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to have him arrested.  Moreover, Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was not entitled to qualified immunity.  However, she did find that the police officers who actually made the arrest were entitled to qualified immunity.

Regarding the reasonableness of their actions, Judge Seibel's discussion about the differences between the police officers executing the arrest and the prosecutor is illuminating.   She stated that the precedent "distinguishing police officers from lawyers, which helps the officers, hurts Zangala," the prosecutor.

If cops are not expected to know what a lawyer would learn or intuit from researching case law, an assistant district attorney certainly is. And  there surely is nothing unfair or impracticable about holding a trained lawyer to the standard of trained lawyer. While it is reasonable for a police officer to rely in certain circumstances on the legal advice of a prosecutor, the prosecutor himself must be held to the standard of a trained lawyer.

And given that the assistant district attorney was a "trained lawyer," she held that he is "not saved by his getting approval from the District Attorney in the way that the officers are saved by complying and getting approval from an assistant district attorney."  Indeed, the prosecutor's actions are not reasonable "given that he had the time to do the relatively simple legal research but did not."  Additionally, Judge Seibel intimates that the prosecutor may have known that the arrest suffered from First Amendment infirmities and simply chose to continue.

Finally, Judge Seibel decided that the claim against the village could proceed on the issues of whether there was a sufficient pattern of similar violations, the obviousness of the risk of a violation (under a single incident theory), and whether the village's failure to train caused the arrest.

She also directed the parties to discuss settlement.

September 16, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ninth Circuit Rejects Equal Protection and Due Process Challenges to California Sexual Predator Statute

In its opinion in Taylor v. San Diego County today, a panel of the Ninth Circuit rejected constitutional challenges to indefinite detention as a "sexually violent predator" raised in a habeas petition governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).

"Lunatic Asylum" circa 1831 via

The court's equal protection analysis was essentially that "sexually violent predators" are "not similarly situated" to other civilly committed offenders.  "California’s expressed legislative policy is to protect the public from the increased danger posed by sexually violent predators," and thus indefinite detention, rather than one year renewable periods of detention do not offend equal protection. 

Additionally, the court found that there was no due process problem with the California statute's requirement that the person (not the state) bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he no longer meets the definition of a sexually violent predator. 

The opinion is another example of the federal courts giving wide latitude to state civil commitment of sexual offenders.

September 10, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Anti-Masking Laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and the First Amendment


Reports that Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members are considering a rally in Columbia, South Carolina to support the controversial display of the confederate battle flag evokes images of hooded persons in traditional KKK garb.

However, South Carolina, like many states, has an anti-masking statute,  S.C. 16-7-110, which provides:

No person over sixteen years of age shall appear or enter upon any lane, walk, alley, street, road, public way or highway of this State or upon the public property of the State or of any municipality or county in this State while wearing a mask or other device which conceals his identity. Nor shall any such person demand entrance or admission to or enter upon the premises or into the enclosure or house of any other person while wearing a mask or device which conceals his identity. Nor shall any such person, while wearing a mask or device which conceals his identity, participate in any meeting or demonstration upon the private property of another unless he shall have first obtained the written permission of the owner and the occupant of such property.

As I've discussed in Dressing Constitutionally, such statutes, sometimes known as anti-KKK statutes, have been upheld against First Amendment challenges.

"Children with Dr. Samuel Green, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon" 1948 via

For example, the similar Georgia statute, passed in 1951 and still in force, makes it a misdemeanor for any person who “wears a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer” and is either on public property or private property without permission.  In 1990, the Georgia Supreme Court in State v. Miller, 260 Ga. 669, 674, 398 S.E.2d 547, 552 (1990) upheld the statute against a First Amendment challenge by Shade Miller, who was arrested for appearing in KKK regalia alone near the courthouse in Gwinnet County, purportedly to protest the anti-mask statute itself.  In addressing Miller’s argument that the statute was overbroad, the court interpreted the statute narrowly, but not so narrowly as to exclude the KKK.  Instead, the court required the mask-wearer to have intent to conceal his identity and further that the statute would  “apply only to mask-wearing conduct when the mask-wearer knows or reasonably should know that the conduct provokes a reasonable apprehension of intimidation, threats or violence.”

New York's anti-masking statute, which was not originally prompted by KKK activities but by land revolts before the Civil War, was also upheld against a challenge by the KKK.  In 2004, the Second Circuit panel - - - including now United States Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor - - -decided Church of American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Kerik, 356 F.3d 197, 201 (2d Cir. 2004).  The KKK group had sought an injunction against the statute to allow a demonstration while wearing masks. Rejecting the First Amendment claim, the court agreed that the KKK regalia - - - the robe, hood, and mask - - - met the threshold requirement for expressive speech, but nevertheless separated the mask in its analysis.  In the court’s view, the mask was “redundant” and did “not convey a message independently of the robe and hood.” Moreover, the court opined that mask-wearing was not integral to the expression, but optional even amongst KKK members.  Thus, while the KKK members had a First Amendment right to march, they did not have a First Amendment right to do so wearing their masks.

Should KKK members attempt to demonstrate while wearing their "regalia" that includes hoods that obscures their faces,  the South Carolina masking statute - - - and its constitutionality - - - are sure to be in play. 


July 1, 2015 in Association, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Federalism, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, History, Interpretation, Race, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Speech, Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 1, 2015

Should the Supreme Court Grant Certiorari to Federal Courts Declaring State Laws Unconstitutional?

Dissenting in a denial of certiorari today in County of Maricopa, Arizona v. Lopez-Valenzuela, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, argued that the Supreme Court should review decisions by lower federal courts invalidating state "constitutional provisions."  At issue in Lopez-Valenzuela is Arizona's "Proposition 100" a ballot measure passed by Arizona voters that amended the state constitution to preclude bail for certain serious felony offenses if the person charged has entered or remained in the United States illegally and if the proof is evident or the presumption great as to the charge. 

"A magician raising a ghost" circa 1825 via

The Ninth Circuit en banc held the measure unconstitutional as violative of due process, over dissents by Judges Tallman and O'Scannlain.

Justice Thomas notes that

Congress historically required this Court to review any decision of a federal court of appeals holding that a state statute violated the Federal Constitution. 28 U. S. C. §1254(2) (1982 ed.). It was not until 1988 that Congress eliminated that mandatory jurisdiction and gave this Court discretion to review such cases by writ of certiorari. See Pub. Law 100-352, §2, 102 Stat. 662.

More provocatively, Justice Thomas implicitly evokes the "Ghost of Lochner" by pointing out that the Ninth Circuit's decision rested on substantive due process grounds and quoting from West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U. S. 379, 391 (1937) and Nebbia v. New York, 291 U. S. 502, 537–538 (1934), which specifically disapproved Lochner v. New York (1905). 

For Justice Thomas, the Court's refusal to grant certiorari is "disheartening," : "there are not four Members of this Court who would even review the decision below."  (Note that Justice Alito also dissented, although he did not join Justice Thomas's opinion, for a total of three Justices who would have granted certiorari). 

For Justice Thomas, the Court's "indifference to cases such as this one will only embolden the lower courts to reject state laws on questionable constitutional grounds."

June 1, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Federalism, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (1)

Supreme Court Dodges First Amendment Issue in Facebook Threats Case

In its highly-anticipated opinion in Elonis v. United States seemingly involving the First Amendment protections for threatening language posted on Facebook, the Court deflected the constitutional issue in favor of statutory interpretation. 

No-facebookRecall that while the question presented in the certiorari petition focused on the First Amendment and pointed to a split in the circuits regarding an application of Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003) to a conviction of threatening another person: did it require proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening.  However, the Court's Order granting certiorari instructed:

In addition to the question presented by the petition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: "Whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U. S. C. §875(c) requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten."

And at oral argument, much of the discussion delved into common law and Model Penal Code doctrine, even as these were intertwined with First Amendment considerations. 

Today's opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, disentangles the First Amendment from the analysis.  It concludes that as a matter of statutory interpretation, the instructions to the jury that guilt could be predicated on a "reasonable person" standard merited reversal. 

Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state. That understanding “took deep and early root in American soil” and Congress left it intact here: Under Section 875(c), “wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal.”

However, whether or not that mental state could include "recklessness" was not decided by the Court.  Chief Justice Roberts's opinion for the seven Justice majority, specifically disagreed with Justices Alito and Thomas, who each wrote separately, regarding the suitability of reaching the "recklessness" issue.  Roberts wrote:

In response to a question at oral argument, Elonis stated that a finding of recklessness would not be sufficient. Neither Elonis nor the Government has briefed or argued that point, and we accordingly decline to address it.

Moreover, although the Court  may be “capable of deciding the recklessness issue,” (quoting the opinion of ALITO, J.), Roberts wrote that "following our usual practice of awaiting a decision below and hearing from the parties would help ensure that we decide it correctly."

Here is the Court's First Amendment "discussion":

Given our disposition, it is not necessary to consider any First Amendment issues.

Justice Alito would reach the First Amendment issue and hold that a recklessness standard would comport with the First Amendment.  Justice Thomas, dissenting, would affirm the Third Circuit's "general intent" standard and hold that Elonis' statements were "true threats" unprotected by the First Amendment.

Interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts's opinion does include extensive quotes from the postings, including Mr. Elonis's reference to "true threat jurisprudence."  It does not, however, include some of the more problematical sexual language.

June 1, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Supreme Court to Review Batson Challenge in Georgia Death Penalty Case

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari today in Foster v. Humphrey to the Georgia Supreme Court denying post-conviction relief. 

According to the petition, in 1987, an all-white jury convicted Timothy Tyrone Foster, a "poor, black, intellectually compromised eighteen year old" of the murder of an elderly white woman.  At trial, one black potential juror was removed for cause, and the prosecutors removed all four of the remaining black prospective jurors by peremptory strike, and proffered race-neutral reasons when defense counsel raised a challenge under the then-recent case of  Batson v. Kentucky (1986).  The judge rejected defense counsel's argument that the race-neutral reasons were pretexual and denied the Batson challenge.  The Georgia courts affirmed.

FosterImageAlmost twenty years later, pursuant to a request under the state open records act, Foster gained access to the prosecution team's jury selection notes, which included highlighting the black potential jurors (image at right), circling the word "black" as an answer to the race question on the juror questionnaire, identifying the black potential jurors as B#1, B#2, and B#3 in the notes, and a draft affidavit by the prosecution investigator stating "“if we had to pick a black juror then I recommend that [Marilyn] Garrett be one of the jurors; with a big doubt still remaining.”  (The affidavit was originally submitted to the court with all mentions of race excised). 

In the post-conviction proceeding, the court held that "[t]he notes and records submitted by Petitioner fail to demonstrate purposeful discrimination on the basis that the race of prospective jurors was either circled, highlighted or otherwise noted on various lists."  The Georgia Supreme Court declined review.

In granting certiorari, the United States Supreme Court could certainly agree with the Georgia courts and simply affirm.  Assuming the Court granted certiorari because of some disagreement with the conclusions, the Court might take a broader approach.  According to the petition in Foster, the prosecution "proffered a combined forty reasons for striking" the four black potential jurors.  Because there are almost always "neutral" reasons for exercising a peremptory challenge - - - given that it can be based on essentially a "hunch" - - - proving racial motivation and discrimination can be difficult.  The Court has the opportunity to revisit Batson and the problem of distinguishing between race-neutral and pretextual reasons, perhaps providing a more workable and fair rule.



May 26, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Equal Protection, Federalism, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Habeas Corpus, Race, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Supreme Court Finds Qualified Immunity for San Francisco Officers in Mental Disability

The United States Supreme Court's opinion in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan arises from an incident in which two police officers shot Teresa Sheehan, a woman suffering from a schizoaffective disorder who was living in a group home for those with mental illness. 

San_francisco_montage_asemblageThe seemingly primary issue upon which certiorari was granted was whether the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, 42 U. S. C. §12132, required law enforcement officers  to "provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.”  The Court, in an opinion by Justice Alito, found fault with the attorneys litigating on behalf of San Francisco and dismissed this first question presented as improvidently granted.  In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Kagan, also faulted the attorneys for San Francisco, noting that the Petition for Certiorari

assured us (quite accurately), and devoted a section of its argument to the point, that "The Circuits Are In Conflict On This Question.”

But, Justice Scalia continued,

Imagine our surprise, then, when the petitioners’ principal brief, reply brief, and oral argument had nary a word to say about that subject.

Instead, the petitioners argued that "the issue is not (as the petition had asserted) whether Title II applies to arrests of violent, mentally ill individuals, but rather how it applies under the circumstances of this case, where the plaintiff threatened officers with a weapon."

We were thus deprived of the opportunity to consider, and settle, a controverted question of law that has divided the Circuits, and were invited instead to decide an ADA question that has relevance only if we assume the Ninth Circuit correctly resolved the antecedent, unargued question on which we granted certiorari.

Scalia had especially harsh words for the attorneys for San Francisco, casting aspersion on their integrity:

Why, one might ask, would a petitioner take a position on a Circuit split that it had no intention of arguing, or at least was so little keen to argue that it cast the argument aside uninvited? The answer is simple. Petitioners included that issue to induce us to grant certiorari.

Scalia states that the Court would never have granted certiorari on the first question as it was argued in the briefs and would certainly have never granted certiorari on the"fact-bound" qualified immunity issue.  Scalia, with Kagan, dissented from the Court's holding on the qualified immunity issue:

I would not reward such bait-and-switch tactics by proceeding to decide the independently “uncertworthy” second question. And make no mistake about it: Today’s judgment is a reward. It gives the individual petitioners all that they seek, and spares San Francisco the significant expense of defending the suit, and satisfying any judgment, against the individual petitioners. I would not encourage future litigants to seek review premised on arguments they never plan to press, secure in the knowledge that once they find a toehold on this Court’s docket, we will consider whatever workaday arguments they choose to present in their merits briefs.

The Court, absent Justice Breyer who did not participate in the case, did "reward" San Francisco by finding that the police officers were protected by qualified immunity: "no precedent clearly established that there was not 'an objective need for immediate entry' here."  The somewhat particular facts - - - the situation involved an entry and then a re-entry of Sheehan's room - - - nevertheless involved a "straightforward" and exceedingly brief qualified immunity analysis. 

And a reversal of the Ninth Circuit.

While the attorneys for the City and County of San Francisco may have endured a scolding, Scalia is correct that the Court's decision is ultimately a reward.

[image via]

May 18, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Disability, Federalism, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

DC Circuit Holds No Clearly Established Right Not To Be Tasered

In its opinion in Lash v. Lemke, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the grant of a summary judgment in favor of law enforcement officers in a suit filed by an Occupy D.C. protestor for a violation of Fourth and First Amendment rights.

Judge Griffith, writing for the court, and joined by Chief Judge Garland and Judge Kavanaugh, described the arrest of Ryan Lash at the Occupy DC encampment in January 2012 by United States Park Police Officers Tiffany Reed, Frank Hilscher, and Jennifer Lemke:

Officer Tiffany Reed, who had been following Lash as he hurried through the tents, stepped up behind Lash and seized his arms from the rear. Lash pulled his arms away and held them in front of his body, continuing to walk away as he insisted that he was innocent. Reed again sought to restrain Lash from behind and Lash again pulled his arms away from her. Reed then took hold of Lash’s left arm while Hilsher approached and seized his right arm. Lemke approached at the same time and drew her Taser from its holster, holding it ready.

Though Lash’s arms were now held by two different officers, he continued to struggle to keep his feet while Reed and Hilsher worked for several moments to gain control of him. Lemke, standing nearby and behind the trio, fired her Taser into Lash’s lower back. He fell to the ground, and the officers handcuffed him.

Lash argued that Lemke’s use of the Taser constituted excessive force in violation of Lash’s Fourth Amendment rights and was motivated by retaliatory animus against his protected expression in violation of his First Amendment rights.  The defendant officers raised qualified immunity and the district judge granted summary judgment in their favor.

Relying on Ashcroft v. al- Kidd (2011), the DC Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the "claimed right, whether it exists or not, is by no means 'clearly established.'"  In so doing, however, the court acknowledged that this inquiry cannot be abstract, but must occur "in the specific context of the case."  This "context," the court further acknowledged, depended on whether Lash was "resisting arrest." 

This would seemingly make summary judgment - - - requiring no genuine disputes of material fact - - - difficult, but the court interestingly relied on multiple video-recordings of the "episode" which rendered Lash's description a "visible fiction."   

Here is one of the videos of the incident:


The court further rejected Lash's arguments regarding the video as conclusive:

Lash argues that we may not rely on the videorecordings in this way because they “cannot fully convey everything that people at the scene felt” such as “how much force one person is exerting” or “the level of detail a person will experience in the moment.” This is no argument at all. The Supreme Court has explained that we determine whether a right is clearly established based on the “objective legal reasonableness of an official’s acts,”  protecting officers from liability unless “it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.”  Subjective factors like those Lash identifies here cannot shed any light on whether a reasonable officer in these circumstances would have believed her actions violated Lash’s clearly established rights. It is that objective test, not Lash’s knowledge or Lemke’s thoughts, that determines the scope of qualified immunity. The videorecordings in the record provide us all we need to determine what a reasonable officer would have known at the scene. And we do not hesitate to conclude from the videorecording that there is “no genuine issue of material fact” regarding Lash’s active resistance.

[citations omitted]

Given the increased use of videorecordings in cases against police officers, the court's discussion of 'what the video shows' might be expected to be used in other cases.

Here, however, the court concludes that Lash was "actively resisting arrest," and thus there was no clearly established right not be subject to a Taser. 

 As to the First Amendment claim, the court quickly found that Lash did not show the officer had "retaliatory animus."


May 18, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Film, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Second Circuit Upholds Admissibility of Rap Video and Tattoos Against First Amendment Challenge

In its opinion in United States v. Pierce,  the Second Circuit considered the arguments of co-defendant/appellant Melvin Colon regarding the admissibility of a rap video and images of tattoos in the criminal trial. The unanimous opinion, authored by Judge Denny Chin, affirmed the convictions of Colon and his co-defendants for conspiracy, racketeering, murder, narcotics trafficking, and firearms offenses largely related to their activities as members of a "violent street gang, dubbed the Courtlandt Avenue Crew (ʺCACʺ) by the government,"  as well as a gang known as Godʹs Favorite Children, or ʺGFC.ʺ

Mozart Graffiti via

Colon contended that his First Amendment rights were violated when the district court permitted the government to present as evidence a rap video and images of his tattoos, some of which he had posted to his Facebook page.  The "rap video" portrayed Colon as rapping: ʺYG to OG / Somebody make somebody nose bleed/ Iʹm OG shoot the Ruger / Iʹm a shooter.ʺ A witness, also seen in the video, testified for the prosecution that the Young Gunnaz crew, or YG, was feuding with the OG (formerly the GFC). The images of the tattoos introduced at trial were explained by the Second Circuit as including:

a close‐up of Colonʹs hand, showing his ʺY.G.K.ʺ tattoo, which stands for ʺYoung Gunnaz Killer.ʺ In some of the photographs Colon is pointing a gun at his Y.G.K. tattoo, indicating, according to the government, his desire to harm members of the Young Gunnaz. Other tattoos depicted in the photographs introduced at trial included one on his right arm that read ʺCourtlandtʺ; tattoos on his left arm that referenced [co-defendant] Meregildoʹs nicknames (ʺYoungʺ and ʺKillaʺ); and one stating ʺM.I.P. [Mac In Peace] T‐Money,ʺ referring to Harrison, the former leader of CAC.

The Second Circuit panel rejected the First Amendment challenges to the introduction of the evidence. First, the court noted that the conviction did not rest on the expression: "here, the speech is not 'itself the proscribed conduct,'" interestingly citing United States v. Caronia, the 2012 Second Circuit case reversing a conviction for promoting the off-label use of prescription drugs. Additionally, the Second Circuit considered Colon's argument that the rap lyrics were merely "fictional artistic expressions," and discussed the New Jersey Supreme Court decision last year in State v. Skinner, noting that the court there observed that ʺ[o]ne would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well‐known song ʹI Shot the Sheriff,ʹ actually shot a sheriff.ʺ  However, the Second Circuit distinguished Skinner in which the court reversed the conviction (although not explicitly on the basis of the First Amendment), by concluding that here the rap lyrics and tattoos were properly admitted, because they were relevant and their probative value was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.  Specifically - - - if cursorily - - - the Second Circuit reasoned:

The government proffered the rap video to show Colonʹs animosity toward the Young Gunnaz, as well as his association with CAC. The government similarly offered the tattoo evidence to help establish his motive for violence against the Young Gunnaz, and to show his loyalty to Harrison and Meregildo ‐‐ indeed other members of CAC had similar tattoos. Hence, the rap video and tattoos were relevant, their probative value was not outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, and Colonʹs First Amendment rights were not implicated when the district court admitted the evidence from his social media account.

As in other cases raising First Amendment challenges to the introduction of expressive evidence, the First Amendment issues are subsumed into the evidentiary one.

Colon also challenged a portion of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § 2703(c)(1), regarding the subpoenaing of Facebook for page content.  Appellant Colon, however, is not challenging the Government's acquisition of his own Facebook content, however, but argued that SCA's prohibition of his subpoena of Facebook content from a witness, denied him his Fifth Amendment due process right to present evidence and his Sixth Amendment right to confront adverse witnesses.  Colon managed to obtain some of the Facebook postings through the work of a private investigator and his attorney used it in cross-examination and introduced portions of it.  The Second Circuit declined to reach the constitutional question, given that "Colon possessed the very contents he claims the SCA prevented him from obtaining, and his suggestion that there could have been additional relevant exculpatory material in the Parsons Account is purely speculative."

The court's opinion resolves the issues before it (including a sentencing issue which earned a remand), but does little to elucidate the important First Amendment concerns that remain regarding the admissibility of rap lyrics and tattoos in criminal trials.

May 11, 2015 in Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Music, Opinion Analysis, Race, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Second Circuit Finds NSA's Bulk Telephony Metadata Collection Not Authorized by Congress

In its lengthy, well-reasoned, and unanimous opinion in American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) v. Clapper, the Second Circuit today concluded that NSA's bulk telephony metadata collection is not authorized by §215 of the PATRIOT Act, 50 USC §1861(b)(2)(A).   After hearing oral arguments last September, the panel reversed the district court's opinion that had rejected both the statutory and constitutional challenges to the scheme.  Recall that this widespread collection has been controversial since the program was first revealed through information obtained by Edward Snowden; we've additionally discussed the issues here, here, and here.

CallwaitingThe Second Circuit, in the opinion authored by Gerard Lynch, did agree with the district judge that the ACLU plaintiffs had standing to challenge the collection of call records.  The court stated that "the government’s own orders demonstrate that appellants’ call records are indeed among those collected as part of the telephone metadata program."  The court rejected the government's contention that any alleged injuries depend on the government's reviewing the information collected rather than simply collecting it: the collection is [challenged as] a seizure and the Fourth Amendment prohibits both searches and seizures.  The court distinguished Amnesty International v. Clapper in which the United States Supreme Court's closely divided opinion concluded that the alleged standing was based on a "speculative chain of possibilities."  Instead:

appellants’ alleged injury requires no speculation whatsoever as to how events will unfold under § 215 – appellants’ records (among those of numerous others) have been targeted for seizure by the government; the government has used the challenged statute to effect that seizure; the orders have been approved by the FISC; and the records have been collected.

The panel likewise held that the ACLU organizations have standing to assert a First Amendment violation regarding its own and its members' rights of association.

However, the court did not rule on the Fourth and First Amendment claims explicitly, although its conclusion regarding §215 occurs in the shadow of the constitutional issues, or as the court phrases it: "The seriousness of the constitutional concerns" has "some bearing on what we hold today, and on the consequences of that holding." 

What the court does hold is that "the telephone metadata program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized and there violates §215."  After a discussion of the program and §215, it first considers the government's arguments that the judiciary is precluded from considering the issue.  The court interestingly observes that judicial preclusion here would "fly in the face of the doctrine of constitutional avoidance."

[I]t would seem odd that Congress would preclude challenges to executive actions that allegedly violate Congress’s own commands, and thereby channel the complaints of those aggrieved by such actions into constitutional challenges that threaten Congress’s own authority. There may be arguments in favor of such an unlikely scheme, but it cannot be said that any such reasons are so patent and indisputable that Congress can be assumed, in the face of the strong presumption in favor of APA review, to have adopted them without having said a word about them.

The court likewise held that there was no implicit preclusion.  

On the merits of the §215 challenge, the court essentially found that the government's interpretation of "relevant" was too broad.  The court noted that both parties relied on the grand jury analogy, supported by the statute's language and legislative history.  Yet for the court, the government's argument faltered on this very ground:

Search warrants and document subpoenas typically seek the records of a particular individual or corporation under investigation, and cover particular time periods when the events under investigation occurred. The orders at issue here contain no such limits. The metadata concerning every telephone call made or received in the United States using the services of the recipient service provider are demanded, for an indefinite period extending into the future. The records demanded are not those of suspects under investigation, or of people or businesses that have contact with such subjects, or of people or businesses that have contact with others who are in contact with the subjects – they extend to every record that exists, and indeed to records that do not yet exist, as they impose a continuing obligation on the recipient of the subpoena to provide such records on an ongoing basis as they are created. The government can point to no grand jury subpoena that is remotely comparable to the real‐time data collection undertaken under this program.

Moreover, the court relies on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PLCOB) Report regarding the overbreadth, noting that "counterterrorism in general" is not sufficiently narrow.  Further, the court states that the government's interpretation reads the "investigation" language of §215 out of the statute, and even more specifically, §215's language "relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment)."
Again, the court squarely rests its conclusion on §215 and avoids the constitutional issues.  Nevertheless, it does discuss them.  It largely relegates the First Amendment issue to a footnote (footnote 12).  Its discussion of the Fourth Amendment issue is more robust, including a discussion of  Smith v. Maryland, the 1979 pen register case, and United States v. Jones, the 2012 GPS case.
These constitutional issues would - - - should? - - - shape any understanding by Congress according to the court.
Concurring, Judge Robert Sack, emphasizes that the role of the courts should not be minimized.  Judge Sack's concurrence is also worth reading its more robust discussion of the First Amendment issues.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the court does not enjoin the metadata collection program.  The court notes that §215 is set to expire and that it is "prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape."   Yet, it strongly implies, it remains ready and able to reach the constitutional issues if necessary.
[image "Call Waiting" via]

May 7, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Foreign Affairs, Fourth Amendment, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing, State Secrets | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Court Takes on Lethal Injection

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Glossip v. Gross, the case testing the constitutionality of Oklahoma's three-drug lethal injection cocktail. Our preview is here.

The case centers around Oklahoma's use of midazolam as the first drug in the cocktail. In particular the case asks whether midazolam, a sedative, reliably induces a sufficiently pain-free state so that the condemned prisoner wouldn't feel the intense pain associated with the second drug, potassium chloride. (Everyone agrees that potassium chloride alone causes intense pain and suffering. The pain is described as burning alive, or burning from the inside out.) If so, there's probably no constitutional problem with midazolam. (Under Baze, the Court upheld a different lethal injection protocol on the assumption, supported in the record, that the first drug reliably produced a deep, coma-like unconsciousness.) If not, however, Oklahoma's protocol may violate the Eighth Amendment.

But there's a problem: Nobody seems to know for sure. More: the state's expert's testimony at trial on a key point about how midazolam works was wrong--so much so that the state itself backed away from that testimony. That means that the district court's ruling, based on its conclusion that midazolam sufficiently protects against pain, based on the state's expert's testimony, is seriously flawed. (Justice Kagan described it as "gobbledygook." That seems about right.)

The Court focused principally on two questions today. The first, whether the state's use of midazolam reliably induces a sufficiently pain-free state so that the condemned prisoner wouldn't suffer from potassium chloride, seemed to divide the Court along conventional ideological lines. The progressive wing went with the condemned (against the use of midazolam), and the conservatives went with the state. The second question--whether the petitioners bear the burden to show that midazolam does not induce the state (and to identify a constitutional alternative for the state), or whether the state bears the burden to show that its use of midazolam does not cause intense pain and suffering--divided the Court the same way.

Justice Kennedy is probably the swing vote, but he was relatively quiet today. He only piped up when the arguments turned to whether the petitioners contributed to the problem in the first place. (Oklahoma started using midazolam because it couldn't gain access to the barbiturate drugs that more reliably protect against pain--and that the Court upheld in Baze. Oklahoma can't gain access to the barbiturate drugs because manufacturers have stopped supplying them, for ethical reasons, for use in lethal injections. Justice Alito suggested that opponents of the death penalty contributed to that situation, and that the Court shouldn't be complicit in this "guerrilla war" against the death penalty.) Justice Kennedy simply asked what relevance this all had to the case. Answer from the petitioners: none.

On one level, the case asks pretty narrow and technical questions about a particular drug and the burdens in proving an Eighth Amendment violation under Baze.

But on another level, the case potentially strikes a serious blow against the death penalty itself. That's because if the Court strikes Oklahoma's use of midazolam (whatever it does with the burden), Oklahoma and other lethal-injection states will have to look to a much less attractive alternative--something like electrocution, the gas chamber, or even a firing squad. (That's "much less attractive" on the barbarity scale, not the constitutional one (alas).) Some states have already moved in this direction. If that happens across the board, moves like this could erode public support for the death penalty. And if that's true, a ruling for the petitioners could be much more than a narrow, technical ruling on lethal injections: it could strike a serious practical blow against the death penalty itself.

April 29, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Criminal Procedure, Fundamental Rights, News, Oral Argument Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Federal Judge Finds Pennsylvania's "Revictimization Act" Unconstitutional

In a well-crafted but hardly surprising opinion in Abu-Jamal v. Kane, Chief Judge Christopher Conner of the Middle District of Pennsylvania concluded that Pennsylvania's "Revictimization Relief Act" is unconstitutional.

Recall that Act provided:

In addition to any other right of action and any other remedy provided by law, a victim of a personal injury crime may bring a civil action against an offender in any court of competent jurisdiction to obtain injunctive and other appropriate relief, including reasonable attorney fees and other costs associated with the litigation, for conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.

At the time of signing, it was clear that the Act was primarily directed at Mumia Abu-Jamal; Abu-Jamal brought suit soon after the Act was passed; another challenge was brought by Prison Legal News and consolidated.

Judge Conner began his opinion by noting that the First Amendment does not "evanesce" at the prison gate, and ended it by stating that the First Amendment does not "evanesce at any gate." (emphasis in original).   In applying well-settled First Amendment doctrine, Judge Conner focused on both  Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board (1991) (holding unconstitutional the so-called "Son of Sam" law) and Snyder v. Phelps (2011) (essentially holding that free speech trumped the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress).  Judge Conner easily rejected the State's argument that the statute regulated "conduct" - - - which is, after all, the word in the statute and which would merit lower scrutiny - - - noting that:

throughout its brief legislative gestation, the law was championed primarily as a device for suppressing offender speech.  The Act's sponsor extolled its capacity to silence Abu-Jamal in particular.  The chairman of the house judiciary committee opined that the Act would end the "extreme distress" suffered by victims when offenders achieve celebrity, admonishing Goddard College for providing a "cold blooded murderer" [Abu-Jamal] with a speaking forum.

 (emphasis in original; citations to Stipulation omitted).  As a content-regulation, the Act "instantly fails" the exacting scrutiny standard according to Judge Conner.

In addition to the content-restriction fatality, Judge Conner found that the Act was impermissibly vague and substantially overbroad as those doctrines are derived from due process.  The Act's "central limitation" turns on the unknowable emotive response of victims, which a person cannot determine "short of clairvoyance."   Moreover, the Act applies to "offenders," a term the statute does not define, and which could presumably apply to a wide swath of persons, including non-offender third parties who publish statements by offenders.  Relatedly, the overbreadth defect of the Act concerned the judge:

[T]he Act ostensibly affects protected - - - and critically important - - - speech, including: pardon applications, clemency petitions, and any testimony given in connections with those filings; public expressions of innocence, confessions, or apologies; legislative testimony in support of improved prison conditions and reformed juvenile justice systems; programs encouraging at-risk youth to avoid lives of crime; or any public speech or written work whatsoever, regardless of the speaker's intention or the work's relation to the offense.

In other words, if the victim can demonstrate "mental anguish," the statute would be satisfied.  And, combined with the broad notion of "offender," taken to its "logical conclusion," the Act would "limit an accused person's right to profess his innocence before proven guilty."

Pennsylvania would be wise not to appeal this judgment.  It would have even been more wise if the legislature had not passed - - - and the Governor had not signed - - - such a patently unconstitutional statute last year.

Would the PA Act have covered MLK's famous publication?


April 29, 2015 in Books, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Second Circuit Allows Police Officer's First Amendment Claim

In its opinion in Matthews v. City of New York, the Second Circuit upheld the First Amendment rights of a police officer in a unanimous panel opinion, authored by Judge Walker.

The court reversed the district judge's grant of summary judgment in favor of the City that had concluded that the police officer, Craig Matthews spoke as a public employee, not as a citizen, and that his speech was thus not protected by the First Amendment. 

At issue is the application of the closely divided Garcetti v. Ceballos  and its "clarification" in the United States Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Lane v. Franks ,regarding the "scope of employment" exclusion for First Amendment protection. Matthews alleged that he was retaliated against for speaking about an alleged quota system mandating the number of arrests, summons, and stop‐and‐frisks that police officers must conduct.  These are the same policies that have been so controversial in NYC and have been considered by the Second Circuit.

NYPD_Special_PatrolmanThe court detailed Matthews' speech:

In February 2009, Matthews, believing that the quota system was damaging to the NYPD’s core mission, reported its existence to then‐Captain Timothy Bugge, the Precinct’s commanding officer at that time. In March and April of 2009, Matthews again reported the quota system’s existence to Captain Bugge, and, in May 2009, Matthews reported the same to an unnamed Precinct executive officer.

In January 2011, Matthews met with then‐Captain Jon Bloch, the Precinct’s new commanding officer, and two other officers in Captain Bloch’s office. Matthews told them about the quota system and stated that it was “causing unjustified stops, arrests, and summonses because police officers felt forced to abandon their discretion in order to meet their numbers,” and that it “was having an adverse effect on the precinct’s relationship with the community.”

The Second Circuit panel held that "Matthews’s speech to the Precinct’s leadership in this case was not what he was “employed to do,” unlike the prosecutor’s speech in Garcetti."  Importantly, "Matthews’s speech addressed a precinct‐wide policy.  Such policy‐oriented speech was neither part of his job description nor part of the practical reality of his everyday work."

The court also considered whether the speech had a "civilian analogue," discussing its previous opinion in Jackler v. Byrne, a 2011 opinion in which the panel had also found the speech of a police officer protected by the First Amendment.  In part, the panel's conclusion rested on the fact that "Matthews reported his concerns about the arrest quota system to the same officers who regularly heard civilian complaints about Precinct policing issues."  

In holding that Matthews' speech is protected by the First Amendment, the opinion may be further indication that the grip of Garcetti on employee speech is loosening.  It is not only Lane v. Franks, in which the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Eleventh Circuit's summary opinion and the Second Circuit's previous opinion in Jackler, but cases such as the Third Circuit's Flora v. Luzerne County decided last month.  This is not to say that Garcetti does not remain a formidable obstacle to any First Amendment claim by a public employee, but only that the obstacle is becoming less insurmountable. 

February 28, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Marshals Immune in Shooting

The D.C. Circuit ruled today that deputy federal marshals enjoyed qualified immunity from a suit for damages after they shot a 16-year-old driver who hit another marshal as he drove out of an apartment parking lot.

The case, Fenwick v. Pudimott, arose after three deputy federal marshals observed Fenwick, a 16-year-old, struggling to park a car in the lot. Fenwick exited the vehicle, entered the apartment building, and came back to his car. As he backed up, the officers instructed him to halt. Instead, he drove forward toward the parking lot exit and clipped one of the officers. The other officers fired shots and struck Fenwick with four bullets. Fenwick recovered and sued.

The D.C. Circuit held that the officers enjoyed qualified immunity from suit, because, under the second prong of Saucier v. Katz, their use of deadly force didn't violate a clearly established constitutional right. The court noted that Fenwick "posed no immediate threat to either officers or bystanders when [the officers] opened fire," but also that the officers saw pedestrians and other vehicles in the vicinity just before the shooting, and that Fenwick hit one of the officers with the car. This was enough for the court to hold that the officer's use of deadly force wasn't clearly unconstitutional.

Still, the court saw it as a very close case. Given that, and undoubtedly conscious of recent instances of police abuses around the country, the court issued this caution:

[W]e emphasize that nothing in this opinion should be read to suggest that qualified immunity will shield from liability every law enforcement officer in this circuit who fires on a fleeing motorist out of asserted concern for other officers and bystanders. Outside the context of a "dangerous high-speed car chase," deadly force, as the Supreme Court made clear in Garner, ordinarily may not be used to apprehend a fleeing suspect who poses no immediate threat to others--whether or not the suspect is behind the wheel.

Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, who concurred, didn't see it as so close. Citing the Court's ruling last Term in Plumhoff v. Rickard (holding that officers' use of deadly force to stop a driver in a high-speed chase didn't violate the Fourth Amendment), she would have resolved the case on Saucier's first prong--that the use of deadly force didn't violate the Constitution.

February 13, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Criminal Procedure, Fourth Amendment, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Third Circuit Defends Public Defender's First Amendment Rights to "Defend" Clients

Reversing the district court, the Third Circuit's opinion today in  Flora v. County of Luzerne held that a public defender's complaint contained sufficient allegations to proceed with a First Amendment retaliation claim.

The unanimous panel held that the United States Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Lane v. Franks "clarified that '[t]he critical question under Garcetti [v. Ceballos] is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties.”  While the Third Circuit noted that the district judge did not have the "benefit of Lane" when it rendered its decision, it stated that "Garcetti alone should have steered it away from applying" the standard it did, a  “related to” employment standard.

"law and conscience" circa 1883 via

So what did Chief Public Defender Flora do that he alleges was protected by the First Amendment?  First, after many unsuccessful attempts to procure what he saw as inadequate funding for indigent defense, he eventually initiated a class action lawsuit for the benefit of indigent criminal defendants in state court, and interestingly simultaneously sought relief in federal court from being terminated for this action.  Second, the county's notorious "Kids for Cash" scandal had resulted in a 2009 order by the state supreme court of vacatur and expungement of thousands of delinquency adjudications and consent decrees, but in 2013 Flora learned that over 3,000 expungements had not yet occurred.  He "brought that failure to the attention of the County, the District Attorney for the County, the Administrator of the Court of Common Pleas, the public interest law firm that represented the juveniles in the expungement proceedings, and Judge Grim," who had been the special master in the case.

Both the lawsuit and the reporting of the failure to expunge were obviously "related to" Flora's position as a public defender.  But the Third Circuit rejected the "related to" standard in favor of the "ordinary duties" standard.  In this light, its interesting that the court highlights Flora's allegations that

his obligations as an attorney, rather than as the Chief Public Defender, compelled him to make the statements at issue. [And that] the funding crisis and the expungement issue as extraordinary circumstances impelling him to extraordinary speech.

 The Third Circuit concludes:

A straightforward application of Lane leads us to conclude that, given those allegations, Flora’s speech with respect to both the funding litigation and the expungement problems was not part of his ordinary responsibilities – it was not part of the work he was paid to perform on an ordinary basis. . . Flora’s ordinary job duties did not include the public reporting of lingering effects from government corruption or the filing of a class action suit to compel adequate funding for his office. Rather, he represented indigent clients in criminal court and in related proceedings . . . .To view it otherwise would unduly restrict First Amendment rights, because reporting malfeasance or misfeasance will regularly benefit an employee in the execution of his job duties by, presumably, removing impediments to proper government functioning.

The Third Circuit's opinion is another example of courts retreating from the broad brush of Garcetti and providing First Amendment protections for "whistleblowers," including attorneys who take action based on their ethical obligations.


January 15, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Speech | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)