SCOTUS Strikes Down New York's Attempt to Bar Prisoner Civil Rights Suits

In the last of three plenary cases decided yesterday, the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to bar all damage lawsuits brought under federal civil rights law against prison officers or guards, allowing instead only a claim against the state itself in a special claims court.  Justice Stevens wrote for a 5-4 majority striking down a New York law as a violation of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. Haywood v. Drown, SCOTUS No. 07-10374.

SCOTUS Rejects Fourth Circuit's Attempt to Turn Misdemeanor Drug Purchases Into a Felony Because a Cell Phone Was Used

The petitioner in this case made two one gram purchases of cocaine from a drug dealer whose phones were being wiretapped. Under 21 U.S.C. 844, these crimes would ordinarily be charged as misdemeanors, but a clever prosecutor tried to charge the petitioner under a felony for using a “communication facility” to facilitate a felony. The Fourth Circuit upheld the petitioner’s conviction stating that the term should be “given its ordinary” meaning. The Court per Justice Souter reversed finding that the term facilitate was necessarily very broad and that the statute should be narrowly construed in relation to the entire scheme. Abuelwaha v. United States, Supreme Court No. 08-192.

Pres. Obama Nominates Second Circuit Judge Sotomayor to SCOTUS

This morning, President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge in New York, as his nominee for the Supreme Court. Click here to read the New York Times story. It is unclear whether the Republicans will fight this nomination or not. Many fear that that fighting the nomination of the first Hispanic to the United States Supreme Court will harm the G.O.P. with the Hispanic community. To read President Obama’s remarks, click here

Supreme Court Overrules Michigan v Jackson & Allows Interrogations Without Attorney

Today in Montejo v. Louisiana, SCOTUS No. 07-1529, the Court overruled the Court’s prior ruling in Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986). Jackson held that a request for counsel made in the courtroom extended to the police. Montejo seems to reject this notion and say that the police are free to try and interrogate a represented defendant and that a Miranda warning should be sufficient. Counsel are well advised to create a new form that they serve on all police department (signed by the defendant as well) notifying them that the defendant is represented, is invoking his Sixth and Fifth Amendment rights to counsel, and that any requests to communicate to the defendant whatsoever should be directed Click here to read the Associated Press discussion of this case.


Detroit Free Press Studies Michigan Parole Reforms

The Detroit Free Press has started a series of comprehensive articles examining the changes in Michigan’s parole system. The Free Press cites a 90% success rate with the new intensive parole program, but asks whether a 10% error rate is acceptable.

SCOTUS Overrules NY v Belton and Limits Auto Searches

Until very recently, the United States Supreme Court had been engaged in a pattern of reducing the amount of privacy that an individual had in a motor vehicle to practically nil. Because of the inherent mobility in most vehicles, the Court declared that the warrant requirement did not apply to a motor vehicle. The Court extended this rationale to discrete items in a motor vehicle such as purses in brief cases. In New York v Belton, the high court extended the protective sweep rationale of its earlier ruling in Terry v Ohio to the motor vehicle. Any place a motorist or passenger could theoretically lunge for a weapon could be searched with this protective sweep, even if the motorist or passenger had been separated from the vehicle.. In Arizona v Gant, the Court overturned Belton in a 4-1-4 decision with Justice Scalia offering a critical view of the entire “officer safety rationale” used to justify these warrantless searches. Arizona v. Gant, 07-542.Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that police may conduct a warrantless vehicle search incident to an arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or the officers have reasonable belief that “evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”The ruling directly limits New York v. Belton,. In Belton, the Court held that “when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment.” The Court affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court ruling for the defendant, Rodney Gant, on whom police found cocaine during an arrest for driving with a suspended license. The state court held that Gant could not have reached his car during the search and posed no safety threat to the officers, making a vehicle search unreasonable under the “reaching-distance rule.” applied in Belton.Justice Stevens’s opinion for the majority, which was joined by an uncommon coalition of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, held that stare decisis cannot justify unconstitutional police practice, especially in a case — such as this one — that can clearly be distinguished on its facts from Belton and its progeny.In a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia disparaged that line of cases as “badly reasoned” with a “fanciful reliance” upon the officer safety rule. Justice Scalia was clearly the swing vote in the case, explaining that a “4-to-1-to-4 opinion that leaves the governing rule uncertain” would be “unacceptable.” In his view, the “charade of officer safety” in Belton, Chimel, and Thornton v. United States (extending Belton to all “recent occupants” of a vehicle) should be abandoned in favor of the rule that the majority ultimately adopts in its opinion.By contrast, the dissenting justices — Justice Breyer, who wrote his own dissenting opinion, and Justice Alito, whose dissent was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and was joined in part by Justice Breyer — would have adhered rigorously to stare decisis principles to maintain Belton’s “bright-line rule.” The dissenters predicted that the Court’s decision will lead to the unnecessary suppression of evidence and confusion by law enforcement officers.