Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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Mitchell was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated after a preliminary breath test registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) triple Wisconsin’s legal limit for driving. Taken to a police station for a more reliable breath test using evidence-grade equipment, Mitchell was too lethargic for a breath test. Taken to a nearby hospital for a blood test, Mitchell was unconscious. His blood was drawn under a state law that presumes that a person incapable of withdrawing implied consent to BAC testing has not done so. Charged with violating drunk-driving laws, Mitchell moved to suppress the blood test results. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the lawfulness of Mitchell’s blood test. The Supreme Court vacated. A plurality concluded that when a driver is unconscious and cannot take a breath test, the exigent-circumstances doctrine generally permits a blood test without a warrant. BAC tests are Fourth Amendment searches. A warrant is normally required but the “exigent circumstances” exception allows warrantless searches to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence when there is a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant. The Court previously held that the fleeting nature of blood-alcohol evidence alone did not bring BAC testing within the exigency exception but that unconscious-driver cases involve a heightened urgency. When the driver’s stupor deprives officials of a reasonable opportunity to administer a breath test using evidence-grade equipment, a blood test is essential for achieving the goals of BAC testing. Highway safety is a compelling public interest; legal limits on a driver’s BAC serve that interest. Enforcing BAC limits requires testing that is accurate enough to stand up in court and prompt because alcohol dissipates from the bloodstream. When a drunk-driving suspect is unconscious, health, safety, or law enforcement needs can take priority over a warrant application. A driver’s unconsciousness is itself a medical emergency and a driver so drunk as to lose consciousness is likely to crash, giving officers other urgent tasks. On remand, Mitchell may attempt to show that his case was unusual and that police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs. View "Mitchell v. Wisconsin" on Justia Law

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North Carolina plaintiffs claimed that the state’s congressional districting plan discriminated against Democrats. Maryland plaintiffs claimed that their state’s plan discriminated against Republicans. The plaintiffs cited the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, the Elections Clause, and Article I, section 2. The district courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court vacated, finding that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts because they lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” Citing the history of partisan gerrymandering, the Court stated that the Constitution assigns electoral districting problems to the state legislatures, expressly checked and balanced by the Federal Congress, with no suggestion that the federal courts had a role to play. “To hold that legislators cannot take their partisan interests into account when drawing district lines would essentially countermand the Framers’ decision to entrust districting to political entities.” The Constitution does not require proportional representation, and federal courts are neither equipped nor authorized to apportion political power as a matter of fairness. Deciding among the different visions of fairness poses basic questions that are political, not legal. There are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judgments. The Court distinguished one-person-one-vote and racial gerrymandering cases as susceptible to legal standards. Any assertion that partisan gerrymanders violate the core right of voters to choose their representatives is more likely grounded in the Guarantee Clause, which “guarantee[s] to every State in [the] Union a Republican Form of Government.” That Clause does not provide the basis for a justiciable claim. View "Rucho v. Common Cause" on Justia Law

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McDonough processed ballots as a board of elections commissioner in a Troy, New York primary election. Smith was specially appointed to investigate and to prosecute a case of forged absentee ballots in that election. McDonough alleges that Smith fabricated evidence against him and used it to secure an indictment and at two trials before McDonough’s December 21, 2012 acquittal. On December 18, 2015, McDonough sued Smith under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserting fabrication of evidence. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit as untimely under a three-year limitations period. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute of limitations began to run when the criminal proceedings against McDonough terminated in his favor—when he was acquitted at the end of his second trial. An accrual analysis begins with identifying the specific constitutional right at issue--here, an assumed due process right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of a government official’s fabrication of evidence. Accrual questions are often decided by referring to common-law principles governing analogous torts. The most analogous common-law tort is malicious prosecution, which accrues only once the underlying criminal proceedings have resolved in the plaintiff’s favor. McDonough could not bring his section 1983 fabricated-evidence claim before favorable termination of his prosecution. The Court cited concerns with avoiding parallel litigation and conflicting judgments and that prosecutions regularly last nearly as long as—or even longer than—the limitations period. View "McDonough v. Smith" on Justia Law

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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, 42 U.S.C. 2000e–2(a)(1). A complainant must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which notifies the employer and investigates. The EEOC may attempt informal methods of conciliation and has the first option to sue the employer. If the EEOC does not sue, the complainant is entitled to a “right-to-sue” notice and then may commence a civil action against her employer. Davis filed a charge against her employer, Fort Bend, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the harassment. While the charge was pending, Fort Bend fired Davis because she failed to come to work on a Sunday, going to a church event instead. Davis attempted to supplement her EEOC charge by handwriting “religion” on an “intake questionnaire.” She did not amend the formal charge document. Upon receiving a right-to-sue letter, Davis filed suit, alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. After years of litigation, only the religion-based discrimination claim remained. Fort Bend then asserted for the first time that the court lacked jurisdiction because the EEOC charge did not state a religion-based discrimination claim. The Fifth Circuit reversed dismissal of the suit. The Supreme Court affirmed. Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional. A claim-processing rule requiring parties to take certain procedural steps during or before litigation may be mandatory so that a court must enforce the rule if timely raised. A mandatory rule of that sort, unlike a prescription limiting the kinds of cases a court may adjudicate, is ordinarily forfeited if not timely asserted. Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is discrete from the statutory provisions empowering federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over Title VII actions. View "Fort Bend County v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Mont had a five-year federal term of supervised release, scheduled to end on March 6, 2017. In June 2016, he was arrested on state drug trafficking charges. In October 2016, Mont pleaded guilty to state charges. He then admitted in a federal court filing that he violated his supervised-release conditions by virtue of the new state convictions. The district court rescheduled his hearing several times to allow the state court to first sentence Mont. On March 21, 2017, Mont was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. His 10 months of pretrial custody were credited as time served. On March 30, the district court set a supervised-release hearing. Mont unsuccessfully challenged the court’s jurisdiction, arguing that his supervised release had expired on March 6. The court ordered him to serve an additional 42 months’ imprisonment consecutive to his state sentence. The Sixth Circuit and Supreme court affirmed, citing 18 U.S.C. 3624(e), which provides that a “term of supervised release does not run during any period in which the person is imprisoned in connection with a conviction for a . . . crime unless the imprisonment is for a period of less than 30 consecutive days.” Pretrial detention later credited as time served for a new conviction is "imprisonment in connection with a conviction" and tolls the supervised-release term, even if the court must make the tolling calculation after learning whether the time will be credited. The Court noted that there is no reason to give a defendant the windfall of satisfying a new sentence of imprisonment and an old sentence of supervised release with the same period of pretrial detention. The defendant need not be supervised when he is in custody; there is nothing unfair about the defendant not knowing during pretrial detention whether he is also under supervised release. View "Mont v. United States" on Justia Law

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Bartlett was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during a winter sports festival held in Alaska. Officer Nieves claimed he was speaking with a group when a seemingly-intoxicated Bartlett started shouting not to talk to the police. When Nieves approached him, Bartlett began yelling at the officer to leave. Nieves left. Bartlett claims that he was not drunk and did not yell at Nieves. Minutes later, Trooper Weight claimed, Bartlett approached him in an aggressive manner while he was questioning a minor, stood between Weight and the teenager, and yelled with slurred speech that Weight should not speak with the minor. When Bartlett stepped toward Weight, the officer pushed him back. Nieves initiated an arrest. When Bartlett was slow to comply, the officers forced him to the ground. Bartlett denies being aggressive and claims that he was slow because of a back injury. Bartlett claims that Nieves said, “bet you wish you would have talked to me.” Bartlett sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the arrest was retaliation for his speech. The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit: Because there was probable cause to arrest Bartlett, his retaliatory arrest claim failed as a matter of law. Plaintiffs in retaliatory prosecution cases must prove that the decision to press charges was objectively unreasonable because it was not supported by probable cause. First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims are subject to the same no-probable-cause requirement. The inquiry is complex because protected speech is often a “wholly legitimate consideration” for officers when deciding whether to make an arrest. A purely subjective approach would compromise the even-handed application of the law and would encourage officers to minimize communication during arrests. The common law torts of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, in existence at the time of 42 U.S.C. 1983’s enactment suggest that the presence of probable cause should generally defeat a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. The no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been. View "Nieves v. Bartlett" on Justia Law

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Under the Supreme Court’s “Baze-Glossip” test, a state’s refusal to alter its execution protocol can violate the Eighth Amendment only if an inmate identifies a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.” Missouri plans to execute Bucklew by lethal injection using a single drug, pentobarbital. Bucklew presented an as-applied Eighth Amendment challenge, alleging that, regardless whether the protocol would cause excruciating pain for all prisoners, it would cause him severe pain because of his particular medical condition. The Eighth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the rejection of Bucklew’s challenge. The Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death. To establish that a state’s chosen method cruelly “superadds” pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the state has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason. Traditionally accepted methods of execution are not necessarily unconstitutional because an arguably more humane method becomes available. Precedent forecloses Bucklew’s argument that methods posing a “substantial and particular risk of grave suffering” when applied to a particular inmate due to his “unique medical condition” should be considered “categorically” cruel. Identifying an available alternative is a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claims alleging cruel pain. Bucklew failed to present a triable question on the viability of nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative to Missouri’s protocol; he merely pointed to reports from other states indicating the need for additional study. Missouri had a “legitimate” interest in choosing not to be the first to experiment with a new, “untried and untested” method of execution. View "Bucklew v. Precythe" on Justia Law

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In “Ford” the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing; in “Panetti,” the Court prohibited execution of a prisoner whose “mental state is so distorted by a mental illness” that he lacks a “rational understanding” of “the State’s rationale for [his] execution.” Madison was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He subsequently suffered several strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Madison sought a stay of execution, stressing that he could not recollect committing the crime. Alabama rejected his claim. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s grant of habeas relief, holding that neither Panetti nor Ford clearly established that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed simply because of failure to remember his crime but otherwise expressed no view on Madison’s competency. Alabama set an execution date; a state court again found Madison competent. The Supreme Court vacated. Under Ford and Panetti, execution may be permissible if the prisoner cannot remember committing his crime. Memory loss may, however, factor into the Panetti analysis to determine whether that loss interacts with other mental shortfalls to deprive a person of the capacity to comprehend why the state is exacting death as a punishment. The Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing a prisoner who suffers from dementia or another disorder rather than psychotic delusions. The Panetti standard focuses on whether a mental disorder has had a particular effect; not on establishing any precise cause. In evaluating competency, a judge must look beyond any given diagnosis to a downstream consequence. The Court remanded for renewed consideration of Madison’s competency by evaluation of whether he can reach a rational understanding of why the state wants to execute him. View "Madison v. Alabama" on Justia Law

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Garza signed plea agreements arising from state criminal charges, each containing a waiver of the right to appeal. Shortly after sentencing, Garza told his attorney that he wished to appeal. Counsel declined. After the time to preserve an appeal lapsed, Garza sought state postconviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Idaho courts rejected his claim, reasoning that the “Flores-Ortega” presumption of prejudice when trial counsel fails to file an appeal as instructed does not apply when the defendant has agreed to an appeal waiver. The Supreme Court reversed. Flores-Ortega’s presumption applies regardless of an appeal waiver. Under "Strickland," a defendant who claims ineffective assistance must prove that counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that such deficiency was prejudicial. Prejudice is presumed in certain contexts, including when counsel’s deficient performance deprives a defendant of an appeal that he otherwise would have taken. No appeal waiver serves as an absolute bar to all appellate claims; a plea agreement is essentially a contract and does not bar claims outside its scope. A waived claim may proceed if the prosecution forfeits or waives the waiver or if the government breaches the agreement. Defendants retain the right to challenge whether the waiver was knowing and voluntary. Given the possibility that a defendant will raise claims beyond the waiver’s scope, simply filing a notice of appeal does not breach a plea agreement. Garza retained a right to appeal at least some issues and the presumption of prejudice does not bend because a particular defendant may have had poor prospects. Filing a notice of appeal is “a purely ministerial task that imposes no great burden on counsel” and the accused has ultimate authority to decide whether to appeal. View "Garza v. Idaho" on Justia Law

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Timbs pleaded guilty in Indiana state court to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft. The police seized a Land Rover SUV Timbs had purchased with money he received from an insurance policy when his father died. The state sought civil forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle, charging that it had been used to transport heroin. Observing that Timbs had recently purchased the vehicle for more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction, the trial court denied that request. The Indiana Supreme Court reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated. The Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which incorporates and renders applicable to the states Bill of Rights protections “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” or “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The Excessive Fines Clause carries forward protections found in sources from Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to state constitutions from the colonial era to the present day. Excessive fines undermine other liberties. They can be used to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. In considering whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates a Bill of Rights protection, the question is whether the right guaranteed—not every particular application of that right—is fundamental or deeply rooted. The Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated regardless of whether application of the Clause to civil in rem forfeitures is itself fundamental or deeply rooted. View "Timbs v. Indiana" on Justia Law