Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

Swear to God, same thing happened to me!  Go to a party on a Saturday night, cops bust in,  homeowner claims to “know nothing”, everybody gets busted and goes down to the police station.  Officers make arrests for trespassing, since the homeowner dummies up.  That is basically the fact pattern from District of Columbia v. Westby, to be argued in the Supreme Court soon.  However, there is no crime of “trespassing” if there is nothing to suggest that that the partygoers knew or should have known that they were entering against the owner’s will.  The arrested folks brought a lawsuit against the arresting officers for false arrest, they won a judgment, and the DC police brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that its officers had probable cause under the Fourth Amendment to make the arrests.

Westby is a bit more interesting, and salacious, than my aborted party that one Saturday eons ago.  First, there was someone named either “Peaches” or “Tasty” identified by some of the partiers as the person who told them about the shindig.  Also, when the cops arrived, some of the women were selling lap dances, some had money hanging out from their undergarments, and most shockingly, the officers smelled marijuana.   Continue Reading

I happen to like people like Rodney “Rod” Class, even if I often  disagree with them.  Some people call him a “gun nut.”  He refers to himself as a “constitutional bounty hunter.”  He likes his guns, and has a very healthy distrust of government.  Rod’s case will be argued late next week in the Supreme Court, and the main issue is whether a guilty plea waives a challenge to the constitutionality of the criminal offense to which the person entered a plea.  I wrote about Rod’s case last Winter, and sort of predicted it might be accepted for review by the Supreme Court.  Turns out it was accepted, and it is a big deal in our business.

Without guilty pleas, the criminal justice system would likely collapse.  That is one big reason why this case is important.  Mr. Class, foolishly representing himself, pled guilty to a federal crime of possessing “readily available” firearms on the property of the U.S. Capitol grounds.  Now, I happen to agree with a law that says no one should have a firearm on such property, but Rod thought he was within his rights.  Nevertheless, he pled guilty, got a “time served” sentence, which normally would have ended the situation.  But, as I mentioned above, Rod is an “interesting” person.  He wanted to continue his fight against this particular law up through the appellate courts.  He wanted to challenge whether it is a crime for a law-abiding citizen to have a constitutionally protected gun, on the property of his own Capitol, for gosh sakes! Continue Reading

OK, those unfortunate souls who occasionally read this blog know that I like to go on about the intersection of the 18th Century language in our Bill of Rights (which includes such tremendous ideas like religious liberty, freedom of expression, the right to not incriminate oneself and the right to be free from unreasonable searches), with the world of smartphones, digital communications, and mountains of data for each person and incident that happens to be captured by some device or trove of information.  We all know the the “Framers” or our Constitution had no way of predicting what the world would look like in 2017, but it is fascinating that we try to match their expectations up with modern existence.

Carpenter v. United States is the latest case involving this confluence of our rights and the Digital Age. Mr. Carpenter was indicted for being involved with a series of armed robberies. One of his buddies gave the police a series of phone numbers that Carpenter had used.  The police then went to the cell phone providers, seeking lots of different kinds of information that can be dredged up involving how a device was used, where it was located, and other data that essentially provides a road map to the device-user’s life.  But, here’s why the case is in the Supreme Court:  the police did not get a search warrant from a judge, but instead they resorted to a federal law called the Stored Communications Act (the “SCA”), a 1986 law that allows phone companies to disclose records when the government provides them with “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” that records at issue “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation”. Under the SCA, a prosecutor can get around the need to show that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.  More and more every year, we see cases where the police regularly avoid search warrants, and instead get mountains of data from cell phone providers under the more lenient SCA. As a matter of fact, my law partner Carl and I did a case very similar to what happened in Carpenter, cell phone data obtained under the SCA that was going to be used against our client. Continue Reading

Like the swallows returning each year to Capistrano, we are in the midst of the annual flight to Justice, when the U.S. Supreme Court decides which cases it will review at the beginning of its new year.  On the first day when they announced several cases for review, the Supreme Court demonstrated that this “Term” will have a big impact on the type of constitutional issues that we regularly face when representing people or companies under investigation or being prosecuted for alleged crimes.

I will do a series of posts about the new cases.  These subsequent posts will give more detail and some of the juicier aspects of the case to show that these are not just dry legal disputes, but instead involve real people and lawyers fighting for our rights.  But today, I’ll just do brief reviews of the 3 big criminal justice cases announced today that will be on the Supreme Court’s plate this upcoming Term. Continue Reading

Of all the rules governing criminal cases I have learned over the past 33 years, the Brady rule is the most troubling.  Brady teaches that the government violates the due process rights of a criminal Defendant if the prosecution fails to reveal exculpatory evidence to the defense.  Unfortunately, it is the prosecutor and the police who decide whether to turn over “exculpatory” evidence to the defense lawyer.  In other words, if the prosecutor in a highly contested case finds out that there is evidence tending to show that the Defendant is innocent, the prosecutor gets to decide whether to tell the defense lawyer about that information.  This is obviously very similar to the old saying about letting the fox guard the henhouse.  Prosecutors are like most lawyers, they like to win, and even the most honest and even-handed prosecutor will not see the evidence the same way as does the defense attorney.  As a result, violations of the Brady rule are legion. The quote in the next paragraph comes from a pair of Brady cases that will be argued in the Supreme Court next month, Overton v. United States and Turner v. United States.

“Fifty years after Brady was decided, prosecutors still routinely withhold exculpatory and impeachment evidence from defendants. See Bennett L. Gershman, Reflections on Brady v. Maryland, 47 S. TEX. L. REV. 685, 688 (2006) (“Numerous studies have documented widespread and egregious Brady violations.”); Janet C. Hoeffel, Prosecutorial Discretion at the Core: The Good Prosecutor Meets Brady, 109 PENN. ST. L. REV. 1133, 1148 (2005) (“Withholding favorable evidence … seems to be the norm.”). This stubborn, pernicious problem is not localized. See United States v. Olsen, 737 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2013) (Kozinski, C.J., dissenting from denial of reh’g en banc) (citing cases). And Brady violations occur in all sorts of criminal cases, from capital murder cases to those involving white collar offenses. See Tiffany M. Joslyn & Shana-Tara Regon, Faces of Brady: The Human Cost of Brady Violations, Champion, May 2013 (describing Brady violations in cases involving murder, bribery under the FCPA, cocaine trafficking, unlawful dispensation of prescriptions, and the like).

What happened in Overton and Turner is truly disturbing.  A middle-aged woman was brutally murdered in a “bad” neighborhood of Washington, DC in 1984.  Seven men went to trial, were found guilty, and have spent the last three decades in prison after being convicted.  The prosecution’s theory at trial was that the victim died at the hands of a gang attack that was witnessed by several individuals.  Years after the convictions, the Defendants (and their ever-vigilant attorneys) discovered a raft of helpful and exculpatory evidence that the prosecutors and police officials had withheld.  1) The police and lead prosecutor got statements from witnesses who implicated another person, McMillan, as being on the scene and acting suspiciously.  McMillan later attacked other middle-aged women and was convicted for those crimes that had disturbing similarities to the case in question. 2) The prosecution’s theory always was that the crime was a group attack, even though the prosecutor had suppressed evidence from other witnesses that only one or two perpetrators could have been in the area where the victim was attacked. 3) The witnesses called by the prosecutors at trial had lots of problems that the prosecutors decided to keep from the defense, issues such as one was high on PCP when she identified suspects, that same witness asked her friend (another witness) to lie, another witness was physically threatened by the police when she did not say what they wanted her to say.  All of this withheld evidence likely would have been helpful to the defense. Oh, I forgot to mention, the jury acquitted two Defendants who heard from these same prosecution witnesses, and needed 40-50 votes before it could convict two of the others.

The legal issue in these cases is whether the withheld evidence was “material”.  Under the Brady rule, a Defendant does not get a new trial when the prosecutor suppresses evidence unless that evidence was important enough so that it would have impacted the jury.  The exceptionally talented lawyers representing the Defendants contend that the lower courts used an improperly harsh “materiality” standard, and that the case should be sent back for further proceedings.

Cases like this keep me up at night.  Like most lawyers in my business, I have seen situations where prosecutors hold back on exculpatory information.  I recall one case where an otherwise very honest and honorable prosecutor knew about yet failed to tell me that his main witness had been caught telling an identical lie to what she said about my client.  Only by dumb luck did I discover the information shortly before trial.  My client was acquitted, but nothing ever happened to this prosecutor.  Hopefully, the Supreme Court will send the message when it decides these two cases in the near future.

Continue Reading

Handling criminal cases, mostly in the federal courts in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, and in many other states, is how we spend most of our time, as anyone who reads this blog knows. The single biggest decision in most of our cases is whether the client should, or should not, plead guilty.  Even when we are convinced that our client “did not do it”, some clients don’t have the resources or intestinal fortitude to fight the case all the way to the finish line. I recently concluded such a case, where I thought that the prosecution’s case was weak from the beginning and was getting weaker as we approached trial.  The client, however, did not want to take the chance on losing, and since he is the one who has to serve the time in prison, he decided that the better approach was to negotiate a deal for a much shorter sentence.   I was thinking about that when I noticed this morning that the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in a case that directly impacts  guilty pleas.  The case is Class v. United States.

The criminal justice system today in which we work is mostly a series of guilty pleas.  Trials are a vanishing species.   Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1388 (2012).  In federal court, approximately 95% of all cases are resolved through a guilty plea.  Lindsey Devers, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Plea and Charge Bargaining 1 (2011), https://www.bja.gov/Publications/PleaBargaining ResearchSummary.pdf.  However, in the case accepted for review today, the Supreme Court is wading into the issue of whether our clients might be able to appeal their conviction even after a guilty plea.

Ms. Class is a military veteran who had some firearms hidden in his vehicle which he parked in a lot near the U.S. Capitol building.  A law enforcement officer thought she saw a holster, confronted Mr. Class, and a subsequent search uncovered the weapons.  Turns out that the place where he was parked might have technically been on the Capitol grounds, and DC laws made any possession of firearms there illegal. Acting as his own attorney, Mr. Class challenged the laws, arguing that the prohibition either violated his Second Amendment rights, or violated Due Process in failing to tell the public about what was, and was not, illegal.    The District Judge denied his challenges and Mr. Class pled guilty.  However, he then filed an immediate appeal, and explained to the appellate court that he wanted to continue his challenges.  The appellate court appointed  some very talented lawyers to help out Mr. Class, and those attorneys presented a very refined and compelling argument that the laws used against this veteran were unconstitutional.  The appellate court rejected the appeal, noting decisions that say a guilty plea waives all rights, except a challenge to the “jurisdiction” of the court (or whether the plea was voluntary).

It turns out that a fair number of federal appellate courts would likely have allowed Mr. Class to continue his fight, even after a guilty plea.  These cases arise from two Supreme Court decisions in the 1970’s which held that claims about double jeopardy or prosecutorial vindictiveness survive a guilty plea and can be brought up on direct appeal.  However, the prosecutors want to nip such cases in the bud.  They point out that there is a specific part of the Federal Rules of Procedure that permit an appeal after a guilty plea, but only when the prosecutor agrees.  Mr. Class, like my clients, does not want to say “mother may I” when deciding if he wants to appeal.  As a result, I am fairly certain that the Department of Justice will fight strenuously against Mr. Class’s claim that he still has the right to challenge the constitutionality of the statutes even after pleading guilty.  Again, because pleading guilty is often the singles biggest decision we help our clients to make, we plan on following this case closely.

Continue Reading

Whether here in Atlanta or other places, Carl and I represent a lot of folks who eventually face a sentencing hearing at the end of a federal criminal case.  Anyone whose spare time has brought them here knows that we chat about federal sentencing a lot, whether to analyze or to criticize how it is applied.  But whether we are analysts or critics, we always recognize that the topic remains one of the hottest subjects in the United States Supreme Court.  Yet another case this term, Beckles v. US, exemplifies this point.

OK, first the background.  The infamous “Armed Career Criminal Act” (or “ACCA”), part of the 1986 criminal law re-work that led to the mass-incarceration we are only now digging out from, yields a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone foolish enough to have anything to do with a firearm after having 3 or more prior convictions for drug dealing or a “violent felony”.  As always, the devil is in the details, and the question of what is a “violent felony” has bedeviled federal judges for the past 3 decades.  The issue was made even more difficult when the brains in Congress included as a violent felony any crime that “involves conduct that presents serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  We call this latter phrase the “residual clause” of the ACCA.  After 25 years of trying to figure out what this squishy definition might mean, the late Justice Antonin Scalia (may he rest in peace) convinced his brethren to invalidate the entire clause as being unconstitutionally vague. That case was Johnson v. United States. Continue Reading

One version of “white collar crime” that often winds in federal court is called “honest services fraud”.  The basic version of the crime is when someone (usually a person who works either for some large organization, like a business or government) engages in a “scheme to defraud” that is intended to deceive or cheat another and to obtain money or property or cause the potential loss of money or property to another by means of materially false or fraudulent pretenses, representations or promises, or to deprive another of the intangible rights to honest services.  In 2010, the Supreme Court limited the words “intangible rights to honest services” to mean this law only applies to situations involving either a bribery or a kickback.   As a general rule, prosecutors need to prove an exchange, or “quid pro quo”, and must prove that the Defendant did, or refrained from doing, an “official act”, in exchange for money or something else of value.  However, there have been questions as to the type of “official act” which forms the basis of this crime.  Last Friday, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the case of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell which could provide some answers in this area.

As noted above, honest services bribery or kickback requires an exchange of an official act for money or property. Some earlier decisions rejected efforts by prosecutors to expand the phrase “official acts” to include actions that are “customary” in the performance of many jobs. One court reversed the conviction of a state official who offered, for a fee, to introduce an architectural firm to high-ranking officials who could then secure contracts for the firm. The Defendant there promised to make introductions, but no evidence established that he promised to use his official position to influence those to whom the architectural firm was introduced. That court recognized a distinction between affording access versus actions that influence a decision.

Another federal court of appeals seems to take the same position. That Court said a legislator could not be convicted for taking money from a hospital in return for lobbying mayors to comply with state law in a way that benefited the hospital. That case also seemed to distinguish between actions that use or threaten the use of official powers versus actions that merely trade on reputation or access that accompanies the holding of a certain office.  Yet one more federal appellate court said that “official acts” are limited to those that influence an actual decision about real policies. That case involved a policeman who took payments in exchange for using an official police database to perform license plate and outstanding warrant searches. While accessing the database was part of the officer’s duties, he did not perform an “official act” in return for the money, in that the officer did not exercise any inappropriate influence on decisions made by the organization for which he worked.

Federal criminal cases, State criminal case, here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia and the rest of the country, are all impacted by this morning’s blockbuster ruling from the Supreme Court. The Court held that when a person is arrested, law enforcement cannot simply look through all the data in the arrested person’s cell phone, unless they first get a warrant from a judge. This massively important ruling is just the latest example of how the breakneck pace of modern technology runs square into the Eighteenth Century privacy considerations enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. I have written about this in earlier posts like this and this. . Read today’s case here.

Back in 1969, the Supreme Court issued a decision called Chimel v. California. Police officers looked through a pack of cigarettes in Mr. Chimel’s pocket after arresting him, discovering contraband. The Supreme Court in that case said the search was OK, creating what we call the “search incident to arrest” principle. When a person is arrested, it is basically OK for the cops to look through anything he or she is carrying or has on his or her person, with no need for a warrant.
Continue Reading

We do lots of federal criminal appeals, and one such case was argued earlier this week in the United States Supreme Court. The case is Rosemond v. United States, and it involves a question that comes up frequently in federal criminal cases. Federal prosecutors often try to hold one person accountable for the actions of another person under a law that prohibits a person from “aiding and abetting” a crime. The person who does the crime is the “principal”, and the question in Rosemond is whether the “aider and abettor” needs to have the same state of mind, or “mens rea”, as the person who does the criminal act.

They say you always “remember your first”, so I have a fond memory of the initial time (23 years ago, time flies!) I won an appeal of a federal criminal conviction, which also involved the aiding and abetting theory of liability. My case involved a young man who foolishly drove other guys who committed a series of armed bank robberies. I was able to convince the Court of Appeals that for the very first of those robberies, my client could not be held accountable for the gun that was used inside the bank. The Court of Appeals agreed that under the “aiding and abetting” theory of liability there must be proof that the aider and abettor had knowledge of the gun and the same intent or purpose as the other person who does the dirty deed. In my case, there was no proof that my guy knew about and agreed with the use of the very first gun before it was used. On appeal, I was able to convince the judges to reverse the conviction for use of that first gun, and thus lopped 20 years off my client’s sentence.
Continue Reading