Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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In 1996, Reeves and some friends went “looking for some robberies ” but their car broke down. Johnson offered to tow their vehicle. After they arrived, Reeves shot Johnson and directed the others to get his money. Reeves bragged that the murder would earn him a gang tattoo; at a party, Reeves mocked pumping a shotgun and the way that Johnson died. Alabama charged Reeves with murder. His appointed attorneys explored possible intellectual disability. They obtained Reeves’ educational, medical, and correctional records and funding to hire a neuropsychologist (Dr.Goff). Reeves was within the “borderline” range of intelligence but had been denied special education services. A psychologist evaluated Reeves and opined that he was not intellectually disabled. Reeves’ attorneys apparently elected to pursue other mitigation strategies. The jury recommended a death sentence.Reeves unsuccessfully sought state post-conviction relief, alleging that he was intellectually disabled or that counsel should have hired Dr. Goff to develop mitigation. Dr. Goff testified that Reeves was intellectually disabled. The state’s expert administered his own evaluation and concluded that Reeves was not intellectually disabled, noting that Reeves had a leadership role in a drug-dealing group. Although his lawyers were available, Reeves did not call them to testify. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. The federal district court denied habeas relief. The Eleventh Circuit reversed in part, finding that Reeves's lawyers were constitutionally deficient for not developing evidence of intellectual disability and that this failure might have changed the outcome of the trial. The Supreme Court reversed. The Alabama court did not violate clearly established federal law in rejecting Reeves’ claim. Counsel’s strategic decisions are entitled to a “strong presumption” of reasonableness. The analysis is “doubly deferential” when a state court has decided that counsel performed adequately. Despite Reeves’ allegations about his lawyers, he offered no evidence from them. Counsel’s efforts to collect Reeves’ records and obtain funding hardly indicates neglect and disinterest. The Alabama court conducted a case-specific analysis and reasonably concluded that the incomplete evidentiary record doomed Reeves’ belated efforts to second-guess his attorneys. The Eleventh Circuit recharacterized its analysis as a “categorical rule” that any prisoner will always lose if he fails to question trial counsel regarding his reasoning. View "Dunn v. Reeves" on Justia Law

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Charitable organizations soliciting funds in California generally must register with the Attorney General and renew their registrations annually by filing copies of their IRS Form 990, on which tax-exempt organizations provide the names and addresses of their major donors. Two tax-exempt charities that solicit contributions in California renewed their registrations and filed redacted Form 990s to preserve their donors’ anonymity. The Attorney General threatened the charities with the suspension of their registrations and fines. The charities alleged that the compelled disclosure requirement violated their First Amendment rights and the rights of their donors. The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the Attorney General.The Supreme Court reversed. California’s disclosure requirement is facially invalid because it burdens donors’ First Amendment rights and is not narrowly tailored to an important government interest. Compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as other forms of governmental action. Exacting scrutiny requires that a government-mandated disclosure regime be narrowly tailored to the government’s asserted interest, even if it is not the least restrictive means of achieving that end.A dramatic mismatch exists between the Attorney General's asserted interest and the disclosure regime. While California’s interests in preventing charitable fraud and self-dealing are important, the enormous amount of sensitive information collected through the disclosures does not form an integral part of California’s fraud detection efforts. California does not rely on those disclosures to initiate investigations. There is no evidence that alternative means of obtaining the information, such as a subpoena or audit letter, are inefficient and ineffective by comparison. Mere administrative convenience does not “reflect the seriousness of the actual burden” that the disclosure requirement imposes on donors’ association rights. It does not make a difference if there is no public disclosure, if some donors do not mind having their identities revealed, or if the relevant donor information is already disclosed to the IRS. View "Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta" on Justia Law

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Arizona voters may cast their ballots on election day in person at a traditional precinct or a “voting center” in their county of residence, may cast an “early ballot” by mail, or may vote in person at an early voting location in each county. Arizonans who vote in person on election day in a county that uses the precinct system must vote in the precinct to which they are assigned based on their address; if a voter votes in the wrong precinct, the vote is not counted. For Arizonans who vote early by mail, Arizona HB 2023 makes it a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member, or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot.A suit under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 52 U.S.C. 10301, challenged Arizona’s refusal to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct and its ballot-collection restriction. The Ninth Circuit invalidated both restrictions. The Supreme Court reversed, characterizing Arizona's restrictions as “generally applicable time, place, or manner” voting rules and declining to apply the disparate-impact model to displace “the totality of circumstances.” The Court also rejected a “least-restrictive means” analysis as having “the potential to invalidate just about any voting rule.”The core of section 2(b) is “equally open” voting. Any circumstance that bears on whether voting is equally open and affords equal “opportunity” may be considered. Voting necessarily requires some effort and compliance with rules. Having to identify one’s polling place and travel there to vote does not exceed the “usual burdens of voting.” A rule’s impact on members of different racial or ethnic groups is important but the existence of some disparity does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open. A procedure that apparently works for 98% or more of voters to whom it applies, minority and non-minority alike, is unlikely to render a system unequally open. The degree to which a voting rule departs from standard practices is relevant. The policy of not counting out-of-precinct ballots is widespread. The strength of the state interests served by a challenged rule is important. Precinct-based voting helps to distribute voters more evenly, can put polling places closer to voter residences, and helps to ensure that each voter receives a ballot that lists only the relevant candidates and public questions. Courts must consider the state’s entire system of voting; a burden associated with one voting option must be evaluated in the context of the other available means.HB 2023 also passes muster. Arizonans can submit early ballots in several ways. Even if the plaintiffs could demonstrate a disparate burden, Arizona’s “compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election procedures” would suffice under section 2. Third-party ballot collection can lead to pressure and intimidation and a state may take action to prevent election fraud without waiting for it to occur within its own borders. View "Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs owned a tenancy-in-common interest in a multi-unit San Francisco residential building. Until 2013, San Francisco accepted only 200 applications annually for conversion of such arrangements into condominium ownership. A new program allowed owners to seek conversion subject to conditions, including that nonoccupant owners had to offer their existing tenants a lifetime lease. The plaintiffs and their co-owners obtained approval for conversion. The city refused the plaintiffs’ subsequent request that the city either excuse them from executing the lifetime lease or compensate them. The plaintiffs’ suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleged that the lifetime-lease requirement was an unconstitutional regulatory taking. The district court rejected this claim, citing the Supreme Court’s “Williamson County” holding that certain takings actions are not “ripe” for federal resolution until the plaintiff seeks compensation through state procedures. While an appeal was pending, the Court repudiated that Williamson County requirement. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, concluding that the plaintiffs had not satisfied the requirement of “finality.”The Supreme Court vacated. To establish “finality,” a plaintiff need only show that there is no question about how the regulations apply to the land in question. Here, the city’s position is clear: the plaintiffs must execute the lifetime lease or face an “enforcement action.” That position has inflicted a concrete injury. Once the government is committed to a position, the dispute is ripe for judicial resolution. Section 1983 guarantees a federal forum for claims of unconstitutional treatment by state officials. Exhaustion of state remedies is not a prerequisite. While a plaintiff’s failure to properly pursue administrative procedures may render a claim unripe if avenues remain for the government to clarify or change its decision, administrative missteps do not defeat ripeness once the government has adopted its final position. Ordinary finality is sufficient because the Fifth Amendment enjoys “full-fledged constitutional status.” View "Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco" on Justia Law

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Officers arrested Gilbert for trespassing, took him to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and placed him in a holding cell. An officer saw Gilbert tie a piece of clothing around the cell bars and put it around his neck, in an apparent suicide attempt. Three officers entered Gilbert’s cell, eventually brought Gilbert to a kneeling position over a concrete bench, and handcuffed his arms behind his back. Gilbert kicked the officers and hit his head on the bench. They shackled his legs. Six officers moved Gilbert to a prone position, face down on the floor. Three officers held Gilbert down at the shoulders, biceps, and legs; at least one placed pressure on Gilbert’s back and torso. Gilbert tried to raise his chest, saying, “‘It hurts. Stop.’” After 15 minutes of struggling, Gilbert’s breathing became abnormal; he stopped moving. The officers rolled Gilbert onto his back and found no pulse; they performed chest compressions and rescue breathing. An ambulance transported Gilbert to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. In an “excessive force” suit, the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the officers.The Supreme Court vacated. The excessive force inquiry requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used; the extent of the plaintiff’s injury; any effort by the officer to limit the amount of force; the severity of the underlying security problem; the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and whether the plaintiff was actively resisting. Here, the court either failed to analyze or found insignificant, details such as that Gilbert was already handcuffed and shackled when placed in the prone position, that officers kept him in that position for 15 minutes, and that St. Louis instructs its officers that pressing down on the back of a prone subject can cause suffocation. The lower court’s opinion could be read to treat Gilbert’s “ongoing resistance” as controlling as a matter of law. Such a per se rule would contravene the careful, context-specific analysis required by precedent. View "Lombardo v. St. Louis" on Justia Law

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B.L. failed to make her school’s varsity cheerleading squad. While visiting a store over the weekend, B.L. posted two images on Snapchat, a social media smartphone application that allows users to share temporary images with selected friends. B.L.’s posts expressed frustration with the school and the cheerleading squad; one contained vulgar language and gestures. When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year.The Third Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed a district court injunction, ordering the school to reinstate B. L. to the cheerleading team. Schools have a special interest in regulating on-campus student speech that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” When that speech takes place off-campus, circumstances that may implicate a school’s regulatory interests include serious bullying or harassment; threats aimed at teachers or other students; failure to follow rules concerning lessons and homework, the use of computers, or participation in online school activities; and breaches of school security devices. However, courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech.B.L.’s posts did not involve features that would place them outside the First Amendment’s ordinary protection; they appeared outside of school hours from a location outside the school and did not identify the school or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language. Her audience consisted of her private circle of Snapchat friends. B.L. spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. The school has presented no evidence of any general effort to prevent students from using vulgarity outside the classroom. The school’s interest in preventing disruption is not supported by the record. View "Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L." on Justia Law

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Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer, playing loud music and honking his horn. The officer followed Lange and soon turned on his overhead lights to signal Lange to pull over. Rather than stopping, Lange drove a short distance to his driveway and entered his attached garage. Without obtaining a warrant, the officer followed Lange into the garage, questioned him, and, after observing signs of intoxication, put him through field sobriety tests. Charged with misdemeanor DUI, Lange moved to suppress the evidence obtained after the officer entered his garage. California courts rejected his Fourth Amendment arguments.The Supreme Court vacated. Under the Fourth Amendment, the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home. Precedent favors a case-by-case assessment of exigency when deciding whether a suspected misdemeanant’s flight justifies a warrantless home entry. Such exigencies may exist when an officer must act to prevent imminent injury, the destruction of evidence, or a suspect’s escape. Misdemeanors may be minor. When a minor offense (and no flight) is involved, police officers do not usually face the kind of emergency that can justify a warrantless home entry. Adding a suspect’s flight does not change the situation enough to justify a categorical rule. When the totality of circumstances (including the flight itself) show an emergency—a need to act before it is possible to get a warrant—the police may act without waiting. Common law afforded the home strong protection from government intrusion and did not include a categorical rule allowing warrantless home entry when a suspected misdemeanant flees. View "Lange v. California" on Justia Law

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Philadelphia contracts with private agencies, which certify prospective foster families under state criteria. Based on its religious beliefs, Catholic Social Services (CSS) will not certify unmarried couples or same-sex married couples. Other Philadelphia agencies will certify same-sex couples. No same-sex couple sought certification from CSS. Philadelphia informed CSS that unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples it would no longer refer children to the agency, citing a non-discrimination provision in the agency’s contract and its Fair Practices Ordinance. CSS filed suit. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of preliminary relief.The Supreme Court reversed. The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples violates the Free Exercise Clause by requiring CSS either to curtail its mission or to certify same-sex couples in violation of its religious beliefs. Philadelphia's policies are neither neutral nor generally applicable so they are subject to strict scrutiny. The contract's non-discrimination requirement is not generally applicable; it permits exceptions at the “sole discretion” of the Commissioner. The Ordinance forbids interfering with the public accommodations opportunities of an individual based on sexual orientation, defining a public accommodation to include a provider “whose goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations are extended, offered, sold, or otherwise made available to the public.” Certification as a foster parent is not readily accessible to the public; the process involves a customized assessment that bears little resemblance to staying in a hotel or riding a bus.A government policy can survive strict scrutiny only if it advances compelling interests and is narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. Philadelphia has no compelling interest in denying CSS an exception to allow it to continue serving Philadelphia's children consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone. View "Fulton v. Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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In its 2019 “Rehaif” decision, the Supreme Court clarified that for 18 U.S.C. 922(g) firearms-possession offenses, the prosecution must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he was a felon when he possessed the firearm. Before Rehaif, the petitioners were convicted under section 922(g)(1). The Eleventh Circuit rejected Greer's request for a new trial based on the court’s failure to instruct the jury that Greer had to know he was a felon to be found guilty. The Fourth Circuit agreed that Gary's guilty plea must be vacated because the court failed to advise him that, if he went to trial, a jury would have to find that he knew he was a felon.The Supreme Court affirmed Greer's conviction and reversed as to Gary. A Rehaif error is not a basis for plain-error relief unless the defendant makes a sufficient argument that he would have presented evidence at trial that he did not know he was a felon. A defendant who has “an opportunity to object” to an alleged error and fails to do so forfeits the claim of error. If a defendant later raises the forfeited claim, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b)’s plain-error standard applies. Rehaif errors occurred during the underlying proceedings and the errors were plain but Greer must show that, if the court had correctly instructed the jury, there is a “reasonable probability” that he would have been acquitted; Gary must show that, if the court had correctly advised him, there is a “reasonable probability” that he would not have pled guilty. They have not carried that burden. Both had multiple prior felony convictions. The Court rejected arguments that Rehaif errors are “structural” and require automatic vacatur. View "Greer v. United States" on Justia Law

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During an argument with his wife, Caniglia placed a handgun on a table and asked his wife to “shoot [him] and get it over with.” His wife left and spent the night at a hotel. The next morning, unable to reach her husband by phone, she called the police to request a welfare check. Officers encountered Caniglia on the porch of his home and called an ambulance, believing that Caniglia posed a risk to himself or others. Caniglia agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation if the officers would not confiscate his firearms. After Caniglia left, the officers located and seized his weapons. Caniglia sued, claiming that the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The First Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the officers, extrapolating from the Supreme Court’s “Cady” decision a theory that the officers’ removal of Caniglia and his firearms from his home was justified by a “community caretaking exception” to the warrant requirement.A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. Cady held that a warrantless search of an impounded vehicle for an unsecured firearm did not violate the Fourth Amendment in light of the officers’ “community caretaking functions.” Searches of vehicles and homes are constitutionally different; the core of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee is the right of a person to retreat into his home and “free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” View "Caniglia v. Strom" on Justia Law