Wednesday, April 15, 2009
The American legal system guarantees "equal justice under law." Those words, carved in stone on the facade of the Supreme Court, are a constitutional promise that everyone will have the same opportunity for justice.
But a new report by the bipartisan Constitution Project says the United States has broken that promise for poor people accused of crimes. The report is the most in-depth study of indigent defense in decades.
Monday, April 6, 2009
Valerie Gainous paid her debt to society, but almost went to jail because of a debt to Florida’s courts.
In 1996, she was convicted of writing bad checks; she paid restitution, performed community service and thought she was finished with the criminal justice system. Earlier this year, however, she received a letter from Collections Court telling her that she was once again facing jail time — this time, for failing to pay $240 in leftover court fees and fines, which she says she cannot afford.
Ms. Gainous has been caught up in her state’s exceptionally aggressive system to collect the court fines and fees that keep its judiciary system working. Judges themselves dun citizens who have fallen behind in their payments, but unlike other creditors, they can throw debtors in jail — and they do, by the thousands.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
This case concerns the consequences of a state trial court's erroneous denial of a defendant's peremptory challenge to the seating of a juror in a criminal case. If all seated jurors are qualified and unbiased, does the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nonetheless require automatic reversal of the defendant's conviction?
Following a jury trial in an Illinois state court, defendant-petitioner Michael Rivera was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a prison term of 85 years. On appeal, Rivera challenged the trial court's rejection of his peremptory challenge to venire member Deloris Gomez. Gomez sat on Rivera's jury and indeed served as the jury's foreperson. It is conceded that there was no basis to challenge Gomez for cause. She met the requirements for jury service, and Rivera does not contend that she was in fact biased against him. The Supreme Court of Illinois held that the peremptory challenge should have been allowed, but further held that the error was harmless and therefore did not warrant reversal of Rivera's conviction. We affirm the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court.
The right to exercise peremptory challenges in state court is determined by state law. This Court has "long recognized" that "peremptory challenges are not of federal constitutional dimension." United States v. Martinez-Salazar, 528 U. S. 304, 311 (2000). States may withhold peremptory challenges "altogether without impairing the constitutional guarantee of an impartial jury and a fair trial." Georgia v. McCollum, 505 U. S. 42, 57 (1992). Just as state law controls the existence and exercise of peremptory challenges, so state law determines the consequences of an erroneous denial of such a challenge. Accordingly, we have no cause to disturb the Illinois Supreme Court's determination that, in the circumstances Rivera's case presents, the trial court's error did not warrant reversal of his conviction.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Savana Redding still remembers the clothes she had on — black stretch pants with butterfly patches and a pink T-shirt — the day school officials here forced her to strip six years ago. She was 13 and in eighth grade. An assistant principal, enforcing the school’s antidrug policies, suspected her of having brought prescription-strength ibuprofen pills to school. One of the pills is as strong as two Advils. The search by two female school employees was methodical and humiliating, Ms. Redding said. After she had stripped to her underwear, “they asked me to pull out my bra and move it from side to side,” she said. “They made me open my legs and pull out my underwear.” Ms. Redding, an honors student, had no pills. But she had a furious mother and a lawyer, and now her case has reached the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on April 21. The case will require the justices to consider the thorny question of just how much leeway school officials should have in policing zero-tolerance policies for drugs and violence, and the court is likely to provide important guidance to schools around the nation.
Savana Redding still remembers the clothes she had on — black stretch pants with butterfly patches and a pink T-shirt — the day school officials here forced her to strip six years ago. She was 13 and in eighth grade.
An assistant principal, enforcing the school’s antidrug policies, suspected her of having brought prescription-strength ibuprofen pills to school. One of the pills is as strong as two Advils.
The search by two female school employees was methodical and humiliating, Ms. Redding said. After she had stripped to her underwear, “they asked me to pull out my bra and move it from side to side,” she said. “They made me open my legs and pull out my underwear.”
Ms. Redding, an honors student, had no pills. But she had a furious mother and a lawyer, and now her case has reached the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on April 21.
The case will require the justices to consider the thorny question of just how much leeway school officials should have in policing zero-tolerance policies for drugs and violence, and the court is likely to provide important guidance to schools around the nation.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Last week, a juror in a big federal drug trial in Florida admitted to the judge that he had been doing research on the case on the Internet, directly violating the judge’s instructions and centuries of legal rules. But when the judge questioned the rest of the jury, he got an even bigger shock.
Eight other jurors had been doing the same thing. The federal judge, William J. Zloch, had no choice but to declare a mistrial, wasting eight weeks of work by federal prosecutors and defense lawyers.
“We were stunned,” said the defense lawyer, Peter Raben, who was told by the jury that he was on the verge of winning the case. “It’s the first time modern technology struck us in that fashion, and it hit us right over the head.”
It might be called a Google mistrial. The use of BlackBerrys and iPhones by jurors gathering and sending out information about cases is wreaking havoc on trials around the country, upending deliberations and infuriating judges.
Monday, March 16, 2009
About nine months ago, the Supreme Court breathed new life into the Second Amendment, ruling for the first time that it protects an individual right to own guns. Since then, lower federal courts have decided more than 80 cases interpreting the decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, and it is now possible to make a preliminary assessment of its impact.
So far, Heller is firing blanks.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Police officers did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when they fatally shot a mentally ill hostage-taker, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held Feb. 12 (Waller v. Danville, Va., 4th Cir., No. 07-2099, 2/12/09).
The decedent's sister argued that the officers did not face exigent circumstances because they waited two hours before taking action. She also contended that they should have reasonably accommodated his disability by not banging on the door and yelling at the decedent, but instead calling mental health professionals, contacting his family members, or seeking to administer medications to him.
But Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, while stopping short of recognizing an “exigent circumstances” exception to ADA liability, said that the officers' reasonable belief “ ‘that this was a potentially violent hostage situation' … cannot help but inform” the ADA inquiry. He further concluded that the accommodations proposed by the sister were unreasonable, while the steps taken by the officers—including speaking with their supervisors, deploying a hostage negotiator, and attempting to calm the situation by waiting at least two hours before entering the premises—were reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, and thus satisfied any ADA duty of accommodation.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The sharp growth in illegal immigration and increased enforcement of immigration laws have dramatically altered the ethnic composition of offenders sentenced in federal courts. In 2007, Latinos accounted for 40 percent of all those convicted of federal crimes and one third of all federal prison inmates, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank.
Nearly half of all Latino offenders, or about 48 percent, were convicted of immigration crimes. Drug offenses were the second-most prevalent charge among Latino federal convicts, according to the report, which was made public on Wednesday.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
In the first major national security case of the Obama administration, lawyers representing the government took the exact same position as the Bush administration. Government attorneys asked a judge to throw out a torture case, citing the need to preserve state secrets. Some human rights activists now say they feel betrayed by an administration that had promised greater openness and transparency.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
An aggressive federal effort to keep track of sexual offenders is at risk of collapse because of objections from states and legal challenges from sex offenders and others.
The effort, approved by Congress three years ago, requires all states to adopt strict standards for registering sex offenders and is meant to prevent offenders from eluding the authorities, especially when they move out of state.
The law followed several heinous crimes by sex offenders on the run, including Joseph E. Duncan III, who in 2005 fled North Dakota, where he had been registered, and committed sex crimes and murder in three states, ending with the torture and killing of a 9-year-old boy in Montana.
An estimated 100,000 sex offenders are not living where they are registered, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which collects the data from the states and provides it to the United States Marshals Service and other federal agencies.
But officials in many states complain about the law’s cost and, in some instances, contend their laws are more effective than the federal one. The states also suggest that the federal requirements violate their right to set their own policies and therefore may be unconstitutional, at least in part.
Friday, February 6, 2009
The 7th Circuit refused to overturn the conviction of a former spy for Saddam Hussein who came to the United States as an unwitting "sleeper agent" for the Iraqi Intelligence Service and obtained U.S. citizenship by lying on his application.
Sami Latchin actively served in the IIS from 1979 to 1993, and was selected as one of the sleeper agents in Hussein's plan to plant spies around the world to gain positions of influence, gather intelligence and influence policy in favor of Hussein's Ba'athist regime.
"All spy programs, of course, operate on deception - the spies pretend to be people they aren't," Judge Evans wrote. "But Saddam's plan took it to a whole new level - not even the spies would know they were part of the program until they were activated many years down the road."
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
A Sarpy County judge has denied a challenge to Nebraska’s flag desecration statute raised by a Kansas woman who argued it violates her right to free speech.
Judge Todd Hutton ruled Tuesday that prosecutors can proceed with their case against Shirley Phelps-Roper. She is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., whose members believe that U.S. troop deaths are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. The group has protested at military funerals nationwide.
Authorities say Phelps-Roper let her 10-year-old son stand on an American flag at the funeral of a National Guardsman in June 2007 in Bellevue. They also say she wore a flag as a skirt that dragged on the ground.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
In 1983, a young lawyer in the Reagan White House was hard at work on what he called in a memorandum “the campaign to amend or abolish the exclusionary rule” — the principle that evidence obtained by police misconduct cannot be used against a defendant.
The Reagan administration’s attacks on the exclusionary rule — a barrage of speeches, opinion articles, litigation and proposed legislation — never gained much traction. But now that young lawyer, John G. Roberts Jr., is chief justice of the United States.
This month, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority in Herring v. United States, a 5-to-4 decision, took a big step toward the goal he had discussed a quarter-century before. Taking aim at one of the towering legacies of the Warren Court, its landmark 1961 decision applying the exclusionary rule to the states, the chief justice’s majority opinion established for the first time that unlawful police conduct should not require the suppression of evidence if all that was involved was isolated carelessness. That was a significant step in itself. More important yet, it suggested that the exclusionary rule itself might be at risk.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
A mistrial was declared Monday when a home-invasion robbery suspect smeared human feces on his attorney's face then threw more at the jury.
Weusi McGowan, 37, was upset because San Diego Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Fraser refused to remove Deputy Alternate Public Defender Jeffrey Martin from the case, prosecutor Christopher Lawson said.
At the mid-morning break, McGowan produced a plastic baggie filled with fecal matter and spread it on Martin's hair and face, then flung the excrement toward the jury box, hitting the briefcase of juror No. 9 but missing the juror himself.
"That juror didn't even see it coming," Lawson said.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Gov. Rod Blagojevich's chief defense attorney announced Friday that he is bailing out of the fraud and bribery case against the governor, strongly hinting that his embattled client refused to listen to his advice.
"I never require a client to do what I say, but I do require them to at least listen," Edward Genson said. "I intend to withdraw as counsel in this case."
Monday, January 19, 2009
Just 14 months ago, at his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey frustrated and angered some senators by refusing to state that waterboarding, the near-drowning technique used on three prisoners by the Central Intelligence Agency, is in fact torture.
This week, at his confirmation hearing, Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general-designate, did not hesitate to express a clear view. He noted that waterboarding had been used to torment prisoners during the Inquisition, by the Japanese in World War II and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
“We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam,” Mr. Holder said. “Waterboarding is torture.”
Sunday, January 18, 2009
You invite a couple of million of your closest friends to the biggest bash your town has ever thrown. You extend bar hours nearly till dawn. You import thousands of cops to keep the streets safe. You commandeer every bit of paved surface you can think of to accommodate innumerable buses packed with visitors.
And then you plaster the street lamp poles in a central part of the city with big red signs "WARNING" all that "This area has been declared a PROSTITUTION FREE ZONE."
What's wrong with this picture?
Thursday, January 15, 2009
A Marion County case resulted Wednesday in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that keeps hundreds of Oregon criminals from having to be resentenced.
The case was argued Oct. 14, while Hardy Myers was still Oregon attorney general. The 5-4 decision by the nation's highest court upholds the state's position and reverses the Oregon Supreme Court, which ruled in October 2007 that a jury had to make factual findings before a judge can impose consecutive prison sentences on a criminal.
A federal intelligence court, in a rare public opinion, issued a major ruling validating the power of the president and Congress to wiretap international phone calls and intercept e-mail messages without a specific court order, even when Americans’ private communications may be involved.
The court decision, made in August 2008 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, came in an unclassified, redacted form.
The decision marks the first time since the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping program three years ago that an appellate court has addressed the constitutionality of the federal government’s wiretapping powers. In validating the government’s wide authority to collect foreign intelligence, it may offer legal credence to the Bush administration’s repeated assertions that the president has the power to act without specific court approval in ordering national security eavesdropping that may involve Americans.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of an Alabama man on drug and weapons charges, emphasizing that the exclusionary rule, which generally bars prosecutors from using evidence obtained by the police through improper searches, is far from absolute.
In a 5-to-4 opinion, the court upheld the federal conviction of Bennie Dean Herring, who from the court records appears to have been very unlucky as well as felonious in his conduct. In upholding the conviction, the court's majority came to a conclusion that will most likely please those who complain about criminals going free on "technicalities" and alarm those who fear that the high court is looking for ways to narrow the reach of the exclusionary rule.