Lisa Soronen

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Timbs v. Indiana has received a lot of attention because it deals with a controversial subject—civil asset forfeitures. But as a practical matter this case is unlikely to have much of an impact. What this case now requires under the federal constitution has long since been required under state constitutions.

 

In Timbs the Supreme Court held unanimously that the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause applies to states and local governments. This ruling is unsurprising given that the Supreme Court has “incorporated” almost all of the Bill of Rights against states and local governments since the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868.

 

The Supreme Court’s opinion explains why this case doesn’t change much. All 50 states constitutions have excessive fines clauses which apply to states and local governments—some for centuries. It is possible that some of these state constitutional provisions have been interpreted differently than the federal provision. But there is so little federal case law on what is an excessive fine that it is unlikely most interpretations of state constitutions contradict the scant federal case law.

The issue the Supreme Court will decide in McDonough v. Smith is whether the statute of limitations for a due process fabrication of evidence claim begins to run when the criminal proceedings terminate in the defendant’s favor, or when the defendant becomes aware of the tainted evidence and its improper use. The States and Local Legal Center (SLLC) amicus brief argues for the latter standard.

Edward McDonough, former Democratic Commissioner of Rensselaer County Board of Elections, approved forged absentee ballot applications which he claims he didn’t know had been falsified. Youel Smith investigated and prosecuted McDonough. McDonough claims Smith “engaged in an elaborate scheme to frame McDonough for the crimes by, among other things, fabricating evidence.” After two trials, McDonough was ultimately acquitted.

In its amicus brief in Mitchell v. Wisconsin the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) argues that when police officers encounter an unconscious motorist they have probable cause to believe is impaired it should be permissible for the motorist’s blood to be drawn without a warrant. Wisconsin and 28 other states allow this practice. 

Most, if not all, states have adopted “implied consent” laws where drivers may be tested if police have probable cause to suspect they have been driving while intoxicated. Drivers may withdraw consent and refuse to take a test, subject to penalties. In Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016) the Supreme Court held that generally police must obtain a warrant to require a blood test (versus a breath test) where officers have probable cause.

But what if a driver is unconscious and unable to withdraw consent to a blood test (and unable to take a breath test)? The question the Supreme Court will decide in Mitchell v. Wisconsin is whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

How often do you drive a vehicle not registered in your name? Every day? In Kansas v. Glover the Supreme Court will decide whether it is reasonable, under the Fourth Amendment, for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving it absent any information to the contrary.

Officer Mark Mehrer ran the license plate of a vehicle that was being driven lawfully. He discovered that the owner of the vehicle, Charles Glover, had a suspended license. He pulled the driver over and discovered he was in fact Charles Glover.

In Bucklew v. Precythe the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Missouri wasn’t required to execute Russell Bucklew using a drug he claimed would cause him less pain due to his unusual medical condition, cavernous hemangioma.

Bucklew was sentenced to death for killing a neighbor who was sheltering his former girlfriend and her children after she broke up with Bucklew. Cavernous hemangioma causes tumors to grow in Bucklew’s head, neck, and throat. He claims that the sedative Missouri intends to use in its lethal injection protocol will cause him feelings of suffocation and excoriating pain due to his disease for a longer amount of time than the alternative drug he suggests. He claims Missouri’s protocol is unconstitutional as applied to him. 

The Eighth Amendment disallows “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Supreme Court held in Glossip v. Gross (2015) that a state’s refusal to alter its lethal injection protocol may violate the Eighth Amendment if an inmate identifies a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.”

In December 2018 a federal district court declared the Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual mandate unconstitutional. It also declared the remaining provisions of the act “inseverable,” meaning also invalid. The court didn’t issue a nationwide injunction which would have had the effect of immediately ceasing all aspects of law.

In the district court litigation the Department of Justice (DOJ) didn’t defend the individual mandate. But it did argue that other provisions of the ACA, excluding the guaranteed-issue and community-rating requirements, which were intended to provide affordable health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, were severable. Now DOJ has informed the Fifth Circuit that it has changed course and agrees with the lower court that the entire ACA was properly invalidated.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument—yet again—in two cases arguing it should adopt a standard for when partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Before argument court watchers were focused on Chief Justice Roberts, but during argument Justice Kavanaugh stole the show.

In 1986 in Davis v. Bandemer six Supreme Court Justices agreed that some amount of partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. But the Court has never laid out a test for making the determination.

Most recently, last term, with Justice Kennedy still on the bench, the Supreme Court again failed to articulate a standard for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. The two cases before the Court today came from North Carolina and Maryland favoring Republicans and Democrats, respectively. By almost any measure the gerrymanders were unapologetic and extreme.   

Now that the Court has five solidly conservative members many have speculated that these Justices will rule that partisan gerrymandering claims raise non-justiciable political questions, effectively ending litigation over this question.

All the Supreme Court Justices, even those not living in the D.C. area at the time, will remember the D.C. Snipers. Malvo’s case before the High Court is complicated.

In Miller v. Alabama (2014) the Supreme Court held that juvenile offenders convicted of homicide can’t receive a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Instead the sentencing court must take into account how children are different from adults and only sentence the “rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption” to life imprisonment without parole. In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) the Supreme Court held that Miller’s rule applies retroactively to juveniles convicted and sentenced before Miller was decided.  

The question in Malvo v. Mathena is whether Lee Boyd Malvo may have his sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, issued before Miller, reconsidered under Miller even though they weren’t mandatory.

The technical legal question the Supreme Court will address in Kahler v. Kansas is whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit a state to abolish the insanity defense. In more colloquial terms, the question is whether states may abolish a defense to criminal liability that mental illness prevented a defendant from knowing his or her actions were wrong. Five state have done so—Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah.

James Kahler was sentenced to death for fatally shooting his wife, her grandmother, and his two daughters. Kahler presented the testimony of a forensic psychiatrist who stated that Kahler was suffering from severe major depression at the time of the crime and that “his capacity to manage his own behavior had been severely degraded so that he couldn't refrain from doing what he did.”

In Apodaca v. Oregon (1972) and Johnson v. Louisiana (1972), five Justices agreed that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts in federal criminal cases. Five Justices also agreed that jury verdicts in state criminal cases don’t have to be unanimous. In Ramos v. Louisiana the Supreme Court will consider overruling the latter holding in Apodaca and Johnson. Only Oregon and Louisiana allow non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases.

Evangelisto Ramos was convicted 10-2 of second-degree murder based solely on circumstantial evidence and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ramos argues that the Fourteenth Amendment fully the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict against the states.

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