Archive for the ‘Due Process’ Category

No, Virginia, You Can’t Get Around the Confrontation Clause by Shifting the Burden of Proof

Monday, January 4th, 2010

On June 25 last year, the Supreme Court held in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that in a drug case the prosecution can’t simply use a sworn lab report to prove the existence of a controlled substance. If the chemist doesn’t testify, it violates the Confrontation Clause. (See our previous post about it here.)

Four days later, on June 29, the Court granted cert. in Briscoe v. Virginia, to decide whether the states can get around this requirement if they permit the defendant to call the lab analyst as a defense witness. Oral arguments are scheduled for next Monday, and we can’t wait to hear how the Commonwealth of Virginia tries to make its case.

It seems to us that there is an obvious burden-shifting problem here. The state, and only the state, has the burden of proving every element of the crime. Since the Winship case in 1970, this has been a due process requirement of the Constitution. Unless he asserts an affirmative defense, the defendant has no burden to prove a thing.

So the prosecution has to prove an element. It needs a forensic test to prove it. It needs the testimony of the analyst to introduce the results of that test. The defense does not have a burden to prove anything, one way or the other, about the test.

But Virginia wants to be able to prove its case using only the lab report, and get around the Confrontation Clause by saying the defense is allowed to call the analyst if they want to confront him.

First, who cares whether the state allows the defense to call the analyst or not? Last time we checked, the defense could call any witness they chose, by subpoena if need be. The defense always has the opportunity to put the analyst on the stand as a defense witness. This “permission” doesn’t actually give the defense permission to do anything it couldn’t already do. All it does is imply wrongly that the defense couldn’t have done so otherwise.

Second, the state cannot impose a burden of proof on the defense like this. Virginia’s scheme essentially precludes the defense from challenging the state’s evidence during the state’s case. It forces the defense to act affirmatively and put on a defense case in order to challenge the state’s evidence. That’s a big due process violation.

Third, the state does not get around the Confrontation Clause by shifting the burden to the defendant to call those witnesses it wishes to confront. In a murder case, it would absurd to let the prosecution introduce an eyewitness’s written account of what happened, and no more, so long as the defendant himself could have called the eyewitness if he wanted to. That’s indistinguishable from what Virginia wants to do.

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Lots of prosecutors’ offices are hoping that the Supremes will side with Virginia on this one. Particularly in the more amateurish offices, there is a feeling that the Melendez-Diaz decision imposes too great a cost on the criminal justice system, and imposes unworkable inefficiencies, by requiring chemists to take time off from their busy jobs to testify at trial. An amicus brief filed by half the nation’s attorneys general makes these arguments.

But just look here at New York City, the busiest criminal courts and crime lab in the world. Lab reports are used in the grand jury, where there is no confrontation right, but the chemists themselves must testify at trial. Somehow, this requirement has not bankrupted the city. Getting the chemist to show up is just one more minor hassle that prosecutors have to deal with, no more challenging than getting cops to show up. The requirement is so minor that nobody really thinks about it.

-=-=-=-=-

Still, Melendez-Diaz was a 5-4 decision. And one of the five, Justice Souter, has been replaced by former prosecutor Justice Sotomayor. So people are thinking that she’s going to be more pro-prosecution here, and help the Court either reverse or severely limit that decision.

We don’t think so. We’d remind Court observers that Sotomayor came out of the Manhattan DA’s office, not one of the “amateur hour” offices. Her own personal experience is that requiring the chemist to testify at trial is really no big deal.

-=-=-=-=-

So we’re looking forward to the oral arguments next week. If Scalia gives as good as he did in last June’s decision, and if we’re right about Sotomayor, then Virginia’s in for a spirited beatdown.

Supreme Court Noir

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Roberts Noir

The Chief was at it again.

Everyone had their theories. J.P. said the Chief had lost it, gone soft in the head. Nino thought he was just having fun. Sam didn’t say anything, so he was probably in on it.

None of us thought it made any sense, though. Except me. I had my own ideas. What the Chief was doing made perfect sense, if anything can make sense in this world. He was like me.

No, not like me. I only have contempt for the tedium, the routine drudgery the rule-boys keep feeding us. The Chief wanted to do something about it.

But his methods… Like some Frankenstein, trying to animate the dead… Well, maybe he was more like me than I imagined.

While sipping a cup of last night’s coffee, I decided I liked it. I silently congratulated the guy, and wished he’d keep it up.

-=-=-=-=-

At the beginning of the ’08 term, Chief Justice Roberts sparked a miniature kerfuffle when he opened a decision with a factual recitation in the style of Hammett or Spillane. It wasn’t half bad, and it certainly got the facts across without losing the reader’s interest. But it wasn’t at all what we’re used to reading in Supreme Court opinions. So one heard comments and criticisms in the corridors and over cocktails, for a few days anyway. But people got over it. After all, it was only a dissent to a denial of cert, and who even reads those? It’s probably the one kind of opinion where a justice could get away with a bit of fun. It was just a one-off, let it go.

Except it wasn’t just a one-off. It was just the beginning. Since then Roberts has kept at it, putting a bit of dramatic flair into his opinions. Particularly, it seems, in cases that aren’t all that dramatic to begin with.

Take today’s opinion, for example, in Beard v. Kindler. The issue couldn’t be more boring — whether a discretionary ruling on state procedure is something that can be pursued in a federal habeas claim. The case has nothing to do with the underlying facts of the case, but instead inquires into whether the state courts had regularly followed that procedure, and the general policy arguments for and against allowing habeas.

Yawn. If Dirty Harry or Mike Hammer were here, they’d be shooting or punching someone. They’d deal with the tedious legal processes and technicalities, but on their own terms.

And so did Chief Justice Roberts. He dealt with it on his own terms, in his own way, by opening his decision with a lengthy and dramatic recitation of the underlying events — events that have absolutely nothing to do with the discrete legal issue before the court.

Roberts told the gritty story of Joseph Kindler, which itself seems made for TV or a pulp novel: In 1982, Kindler and two associates robbed a store, only to get caught during the getaway. “In a harbinger of things to come, Kindler escaped.” When one of the associates agreed to testify against him, Kindler and the other one bludgeoned him almost to death with a baseball bat, shocked him repeatedly with a cattle prod, threw him in the trunk, hauled him to the river, tied a cinderblock around his neck, and threw him in the river, where he died of drowning and massive head injuries. He was convicted of murder, the jury recommended execution, but before sentencing Kindler escaped. Using smuggled tools and a lot of help from other inmates, he sawed through the bars of his maximum-security prison, and fled to Canada. He got caught there committing more crimes. Canada refused to extradite him, because he faced execution, and Kindler became a minor celebrity, going on TV and everything. Eventually, however, Canada agreed to extradite him, whereupon he promptly escaped again. With the help of his fellow inmates, he broke through a skylight in a high ceiling, climbed to the roof, then rappelled down a rope made of 13 bedsheets. Kindler made it, but when another tried to follow the sheet ripped, and he fell 50 feet to his death. Kindler was caught again after America’s Most Wanted did a segment on him. Several years later, he was eventually extradited back to the U.S. In the meantime, the state court had long since dismissed his original sentencing motions, as he had escaped before they were decided. The case has been going back and forth on appeal over that dismissal, ever since. The original arrest was in 1982.

Roberts tells it much more entertainingly than this, of course. But almost none of that was necessary or even relevant. It could just as easily have been replaced with “A jury convicted Kindler of capital murder for the brutal slaying of a state witness. The jury recommended a death sentence, and Kindler filed postverdict motions. Before the trial court had considered the motions or the jury’s death recommendation, Kindler escaped. While Kindler remained a fugitive, the trial court dismissed his postverdict motions. Seven years later, Kinder was returned to court, and moved to have his motions reinstated. The trial court found that the original judge had not abused his discretion, denied the reinstatement motion, and imposed the death sentence.”

Frankly, we like it Roberts’ way better.

And we hope he keeps it up, particularly in the more humdrum cases. It does no harm, and it might even keep one or two young associates from nodding off during some tedious night of research down the road.

More Harm Than Good: Why Capital Punishment Doesn’t Work

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Capital Punishment Sentence Length

Without much media fanfare, the Supreme Court has already decided two capital-punishment cases this month.

The first, Bobby v. Van Hook, came down on the 9th, and dealt with a case from early 1985. Nearly 25 years ago, Van Hook went looking for someone to rob, trolled a Cincinnati gay bar, and seduced a guy he met there. The victim invited Van Hook to his apartment, where Van Hook got him into “a vulnerable position.” Then Van Hook strangled his victim till he was unconscious, killed him with a kitchen knife, and mutilated his body, before taking off with his victim’s valuables. Van Hook later confessed, and was sentenced to death.

His appeals lasted for nine years, all of which were denied. He then spent the next 14 years litigating a single federal habeas petition. First, he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of his confession, losing those arguments all the way up to a denial of certiorari by the Supremes in 2007. Then he tried a new argument, that he’d gotten ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, because all the work they had done wasn’t enough. The Sixth Circuit said his sentence should be reconsidered under new standards that had arisen 18 years after the fact. Ohio appealed, and the Supreme Court said you can’t apply these new standards retroactively like that. Van Hook argued that his counsel was ineffective under the standards at the time, anyway, to which the Supremes replied: “He is wrong.”

The Sixth Circuit being reversed, Robert Van Hook is now once again back in the queue for execution, nearly a quarter of a century later.

The second case decided was Wong v. Belmontes, which came out on the 16th. This case started way back in 1981, when Fernando Belmontes bludgeoned Steacy McConnell about 20 times with a steel weightlifting bar. She fought back desperately, to try to save herself, but ultimately Belmontes succeeded in killing her, so he could steal her stereo. He sold it for $100, which he spent on beer and drugs for that evening. He was convicted in California and sentenced to death.

His appeals went back and forth, and he lost. He tried to get federal habeas relief, but the District Court wouldn’t go for it. He appealed that, and the nothing-if-not-consistent Ninth Circuit bent over backwards to find instructional error, but the Supreme Court slapped that down in 2006. The Ninth Circuit tried again, this time finding ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing. In its ruling this month, the Supreme Court pointed out not only how much work went into the defense case at sentencing, but also how wise and skillful it had been. “If this counsel couldn’t make it work,” the Court seems to say, “then nobody could.” You just can’t mitigate away a case where the victim had obviously suffered so needlessly and brutally.

So now, the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and Fernando Belmontes is back on the capital-punishment track 28 years after the crime.

-=-=-=-=-

It being close to Thanksgiving, these decisions remind us of one of the first cases we ever worked on, back when we labored at all hours over Thanksgiving 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips, trying to prevent the execution of a retarded man, Walter Correll. Especially in light of the Supreme Court’s turnaround in the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, ruling that executing the mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, we always get a little gloomy when we think back on that case.

But these decisions also remind us that, Republican though we may be, we remain firmly opposed to the death penalty. Not because it’s inherently cruel or inappropriate, but because it takes so damn long to carry out. The way the death penalty works in this country results in real injustice, harms society, and just makes things worse.

-=-=-=-=-

Look at the graph we stuck up there at the top of this post. We made that graph based on data freely available from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. You can see the raw data here.

That chart shows the average elapsed time, from sentence to execution, for each year. This is the average, and as the recent cases attest, actual times can be much much longer. But on average, the wait has gone from 51 months (4-1/4 years), to 153 months (12-3/4 years). That is an insane delay!

Elsewhere in the statistics, we see that the average inmate on death row right now has been waiting for 141 months, or about 11-3/4 years.

That’s a long time, in anyone’s book.

Now don’t get us wrong — we’re glad of the opportunity this affords us to find evidence of actual innocence, DNA evidence, or other means to exonerate the truly innocent. We’re not advocating for speedier executions, here. It takes this long because that’s just how long it takes. Our system is set up to give a lot of opportunity to review death sentences before they’re carried out. There is no appeal after execution, so society wants to make sure that everything was done right, that the convict has been afforded every procedural and constitutional protection that our jurisprudence has devised. And it just takes a long time to do that.

Our point is that the death penalty is improper (among perhaps other reasons) because this necessary delay makes it counterproductive.

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Why do we punish people in the first place? Punishment is when the awesome might of the government is brought to bear on an individual, taking away rights, liberties, property, and even his life. Why do we do that?

We do that because we’ve deemed some actions so harmful to society that, to protect itself, society has to impose this harm. But that begs the question. It’s more of a definition of “what is a crime” than “why do we punish, to begin with.”

We punish because, over history, societies have discovered that it works. At some instinctive level, you get retaliation. Someone hits you, so you hit them back without thinking. It’s a primal urge, not a civilized one, but it would be foolish to pretend that society does not have its own primal urges. We don’t punish strictly to hit back at those who would hurt us, not consciously perhaps, but it is part of the reason why.

A more civilized reason is deterrence. It’s like spanking a child — the criminal associates the punishment with the crime, and decides not to do that any more. And if the spanking is public and seen by others, then others will also realize that this could happen to them, and they won’t do it either.

Deterrence only works, of course, if the punishment is close enough in time to the offense to have a psychological effect. If you spank a kid for something he did three weeks ago, the only psychological message you’re sending is that you’re unfair and cruel, and thereby weakening your own authority.

Deterrence only works if the punishment is connected to the crime. If you spank a kid and he has no idea why you’re spanking him, you’re not deterring anything. All you’re doing is demonstrating that you are arbitrary and unjust. The kid doesn’t know what to expect from you, and will grow to fear and despise you.

General deterrence of other potential criminals only works if the punishment is known, in addition to being close in time and tied to the offense. If people don’t know that it happened, then there is zero deterrent effect from any particular offense.

Perception then, as in so much of life, is everything. You want the system set up in such a way as to create the impression that sentences are just and fair, but you also want the perception that sentences are also going to be imposed. That, if you commit this offense, that punishment is actually going to happen.

Ideally, a utilitarian and a social idealist might even agree that the best way to do this would be to create the perception that sentences are speedily and fairly meted out, without going to all the expense and social harm of actually imposing them.

The flip side of that would be the opposite of ideal, then. And the flip side is exactly what we’ve got.

In our present system, capital punishment is not imposed close in time to the offense. It takes a decade or two before it is carried out. That’s like spanking a kid three weeks later. Far from having any deterrent effect, it undermines faith in justice and weakens the law’s authority.

As practiced, capital punishment is not connected to the crime. It’s almost random. Some horrific murders get the death penalty, others don’t. The reasons for the variety are not obvious or predictable. Unpredictability = no deterrent effect.

And public perception? After all the randomness and delay, there may be a perception that you could get the chair for a given crime, but nobody really thinks you will get the chair. Folks just don’t have an experience of the death penalty as being imposed consistently enough that we simply understand, deep down at a visceral level, that a given crime is likely to result in one’s own death. At best, public perception is a vague theoretical possibility. At worst, and what is more likely, is the perception that the death penalty is so rarely imposed, and only after such an interminable (ha) delay, that it’s really not a factor worth considering in the first place.

(Of course it goes without saying that no punishment can have a deterrent effect on crimes of passion, where no thought went into the crime. But those kinds of crimes tend not to be death-penalty cases, so that argument isn’t really applicable here.)

Another purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, but it’s hard to get one’s act together after one is dead, so that one is out the window.

The only remaining purpose of punishment is removal — getting this threat to public safety off the streets.

Now this one has some promise. Execution certainly removes the offender from our midst. So does exile, though, without all the mess and expense (though dumping our worst threats on someone else could create bigger problems). Life without parole does the same job, though at theoretically great cost — 75% of all death-penalty inmates were under 35 years old when they went in (see more statistics), so they’ve got lots of decades of feeding, sheltering, guarding, clothing, counseling, treating, educating, etc. to pay for.

Unfortunately, as practiced, capital punishment is just a more expensive form of life without parole. At some point, an ordinary prisoner is going to run out of appeals, but the capital inmate doesn’t. And the capital appeals take priority over other judicial needs, while costing the system and everyone involved a lot more in time and resources. By the time someone actually gets executed, all the various costs involved more than cover the costs of a life sentence.

So if removal is the only concern, then life without parole would be the way to go. You don’t get any extra removal from execution. All you get is increased tax burdens, significant extra burdens on the judicial system, loss of enormous amounts of time and money all around, and the intangible losses from harm to the system’s perception and reputation and authority.

-=-=-=-=-

So, speaking as a fairly conservative Republican here, we just don’t see how capital punishment as practiced in America today makes the least bit of sense. It accomplishes little, at enormous unnecessary societal cost.

That’s not the message the Supreme Court probably intended to send with these two cases this month, but that’s the message we heard loud and clear.

Supremes Punt, but Stevens AND Scalia Agree: It’s Time to Clarify whether Feds Can Still Prosecute Old Civil Rights Crimes

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

seale

Way back in May 1964, in the very small town of Meadville, Mississippi, two black teenagers were hitchhiking down the road when James Ford Seale drove up. Seale, a member of the KKK, told them he was a revenooer looking for moonshiners, and told the boys to get in his car. He then drove them off into the forest. A bunch of other Klansmen met up with them.

Seale pointed a sawed-off shotgun at the boys, while the other Klansmen tied them to a tree. Then the boys were whipped to within an inch of their lives with “bean sticks.” The bloodied boys were hauled to a farm nearby, where Seale bound and gagged them with duct tape. The boys were wrapped in a tarp, shoved into a Klansman’s trunk, and driven 100 miles to a secluded riverbank.

While the boys were still alive, they were chained to the engine block of an old Jeep, and to pieces of railroad track. Then the Klansmen dumped the boys in the river, where they drowned. One of the Klansmen later reported that Seale “would have shot them first, but didn’t want to get blood all over the boat.”

The boys were killed because they were black, and because Seale thought they might have been civil-rights workers.

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In June 1964, three civil rights workers went to Longdale, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a Methodist Church that had been a civil-rights meeting place. A sheriff’s deputy, also a KKK member, recognized their car and locked all three up. The men were held incognito until an ambush could be prepared, and then were told to get out of the county. The deputy followed them to the edge of town, then pulled them over again. A KKK gang showed up, and the three workers were taken to an isolated place to be brutally beaten and shot to death. Their car was burned in a swamp, and their bodies were buried in a dam.

Their disappearance got national attention, and search parties went out.

In July, one of the search parties found the drowned bodies of the two boys Seale had killed in May.

-=-=-=-=-

Seale and several others were investigated for the murders, appearing before a House subcommittee on Un-American Activities in 1966. The Klansmen were asked about a number of kidnappings and murders, but nothing ever came of it. Seale just sat there smoking a cigar, and took the Fifth.

-=-=-=-=-

About forty years went by. The murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee were forgotten.

-=-=-=-=-

Then a Canadian filmmaker saw some old CBC footage of the boys’ bodies being hauled out of the river, with the narration “it was the wrong body. The finding of a negro male was noted and forgotten. The search was not for him. The search was for two white youths and their negro friend.”

The filmmaker, David Ridgen, began working on what would become the documentary “Mississippi Cold Case.” He tracked down the brother of one of the victims, a retired 30-year Army veteran named Thomas Moore, who helped work on the film.

The press had been told that Seale had died in the meantime. But it was discovered that he still lived, and his family had lied to protect him. Ridgen and Moore went to the local U.S. Attorney, who promised to re-open the case.

In early 2007, Seale was indicted on two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy. A fellow Klansman, after being given immunity, told the whole story. Seale was convicted of kidnapping after a jury trial in June 2007.

In August 2007, Seale was given three life sentences.

-=-=-=-=-

Seale appealed to the Fifth Circuit. He argued that the statute of limitations for kidnapping had run out. At the time of the crime, there was no limitations period; but in 1972 it changed to a 5-year period.

That’s a pretty damn good argument. It was a capital kidnapping in 1964, which had no statute of limitations. But then in 1972 we got rid of capital punishment. So it reverted to an ordinary 5-year period.

The government pointed out that in 1994, after Furman v. Georgia, we brought back the death penalty. It was constitutional again. So this was a capital kidnapping again. And he was prosecuted and sentenced after it had been deemed a capital kidnapping again. So there was no statute of limitations.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with Seale, and reversed his conviction in September 2008.

The prosecution requested a rehearing en banc. The full panel vacated the appellate decision, so that it could reconsider the issue. They sort of have to do that.

The full panel then duly reconsidered the issue, and split evenly down the middle in June 2009. The effect was to leave the trial court’s conviction and sentence intact. The original Fifth Circuit decision had been vacated.

So now there was no appellate decision at all! And Seale was left with no more avenues to fight his conviction.

Almost.

Seale took it to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t a petition for certiorari, but the almost-forgotten “certified question.”

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How that works is, the Circuit “certifies” a question that it wants the Supremes to help out with. The Supreme Court is asked to instruct the Circuit court on how it ought to rule in the case.

That’s permitted by Rule 19 of the Supreme Court rules, but it only happens once in a blue moon. The last time it happened was in 1981, when the Second Circuit asked for help with the President’s authority to say claims before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal had no legal effect in U.S. courts (the Supremes said he can do it). There was another certified question in the 1970s on whether a retired judge gets to vote on whether to hear a case en banc (no). Before that, there was one in 1964 on whether there is a right to a jury in a criminal contempt case (no). And the only other one in living memory was in 1946, where the Supremes said the Circuit can’t review by mandamus a district court’s remand back to the state court after the case had been removed to the district court.

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So here was a historic opportunity for the Supreme Court to not only decide a rare certified question, but also to decide an issue of great importance to a variety of civil-rights-era cases that are still kicking around the federal courts.

And the Court refused.

This isn’t the first time the Roberts Court has punted on issues that it really ought to have decided. And the did it again here.

This is an issue that may seem hyper-technical, but it is critically important! There are a lot of old cases kicking around that were capital cases at the time, then weren’t and now are again. There’s lots of aging Klansmen out there, not to mention the number of cold-case murders being resuscitated by DNA evidence. Whether the feds can even prosecute these cases any more is at stake!

Not to mention the fact that Seale, horrible as his crimes were, seems now to have been denied due process. He can’t appeal any more? Just because the Circuit (singular) split, and the Supreme Court punted? His legal argument is going to go undecided? How is that remotely right?

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The Court doesn’t write opinions from a denial of a certified question. But they sure got a dissenting opinion today, in United States v. James Ford Seale, by the strangest of bedfellows: Justices Stevens and Scalia.

The two, usually diametrically opposed in their jurisprudence and judicial philosophy, agreed wholeheartedly that the Court should have decided this case.

This certificate presents us with a pure question of law that may well determine the outcome of a number of cases of ugly racial violence remaining from the 1960s. The question is what statute of limitations applies to a prosecution under 18 U.S.C. §1201 commenced in 2007 for a kidnapping offense that occurred in 1964.

* * *

In 1964, a violation of §1201 was a capital offense [if] the victim was harmed, and since 1994 a violation of §1201 has been a capital offense when the kidnapping results in the loss of life. But for more than two decades in between, Seale’s crime was not punishable by death.

* * *

The question is narrow, debatable, and important. … I see no benefit, and significant cost, to postponing the question’s resolution. A prompt answer from this Court will expedite the termination of this litigation and determine whether other similar cases may be prosecuted.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Why Conservatives and Defense Lawyers Should LOVE the New Hate Crimes Law

Friday, October 30th, 2009

hate crime

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed into law the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. As usual, the Act included provisions that had nothing whatsoever to do with National Defense Authorization. And one of the tacked-on provisions was the much-debated Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

We wrote about this back on May 1. It was one of our longer analyses, but our closing paragraphs sum it up fairly succinctly:

In short, we don’t have a legal or constitutional problem with hate crime laws. They actually seem to be a natural extension of our criminal jurisprudence. But [the House version of the bill] seems to have been passed without anyone actually reading it (not surprising, as it hardly spend any time in committee).

An administration and the same-party majority in Congress just want to push a law through, and so they will. And they will wind up passing a law that probably doesn’t mean what they wanted it to mean, and which might not stand up under scrutiny.
So what’s new?

Well, now we have a final version (read it here or in relevant part at the end of this post), codified at 18 U.S.C. §249. So let’s see what the law as passed actually says, whether it means what they wanted it to mean, and whether it might stand up under scrutiny, shall we?

As passed, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act amends the existing Hate Crimes law so that:

1. If you went after your victim because of the (actual or perceived) race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, “gender identity” or disability of any person (not just that of the victim)…

2. And you either hurt them on purpose, or you tried to hurt them with a weapon of some kind…

3. Then your maximum prison sentence gets increased to 10 years.

4. And you can get life if anyone died, if anyone was kidnapped, if there was aggravated sexual abuse, or you even tried to kill/kidnap/sexually abuse.

-=-=-=-=-

This is slightly — but only slightly — different from the version originally passed by the House back in the Spring.

To get federal jurisdiction, they need a federal hook. Only race, color, religion and national origin seem to be automatically federal. So the statute has a “crossing state lines” and “interstate commerce” hook for offenses caused by religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. (Why religion and national origin are included in both sections is beyond us.)

That’s not a huge hurdle, frankly. Interstate travel and interstate commerce are so broadly defined — and have been for generations now — that most crimes are going to fit the bill. If a weapon was used, for example, it had to have been made somewhere, and even if you made it yourself it affected interstate commerce as you didn’t buy one at Wal-Mart.

The Office of Legal Counsel has issued a memorandum saying the Act’s language passes constitutional muster. With respect to the Commerce Clause, we’re inclined to agree. The Commerce Clause may be an absolute mockery as interpreted throughout living memory, but it is what it is, and that’s that.

-=-=-=-=-

But isn’t this a thought crime, you ask?

Isn’t this just a second bite at the apple for the government?

Isn’t it already against the law to hurt, kill, shoot, blow up, kidnap, rape, etc.?

Doesn’t it put a greater value on the life of selected victims, as opposed to the rest of us?

Isn’t this the opposite of equal protection of the laws?

How is this just, you ask?

You’re not alone. It seems like this is the one common ground where conservative commentators and criminal defense attorneys seem to agree — they generally hate this law.

We happen to be both conservative and a criminal defense attorney. And yet we can’t help but think this law isn’t such a big deal. It’s really not that objectionable.

In fact, it seems to fit into our jurisprudence quite naturally.

-=-=-=-=-

Is this a thought crime? Yes, absolutely. Just like almost every other crime out there.

Crime is something so harmful to society that we restrain the offender’s liberty, take his property, or even take his life. Not every harmful act counts, therefore. We don’t kill people for accidents.

So how do we tell which harmful acts get punished, and which ones don’t?

We look at what the heck you were thinking. For any given act, your punishment will depend entirely on what was going through your mind at the time.

If it was just an accident, then it’s not your fault, and we’re not going to punish you. If you were just a little kid, or severely retarded, or insane, or otherwise can’t be accountable for your actions, then we’re not going to punish you. There’s no point in punishing you.

We’ll punish you a little bit if you should have known better, or you should have been careful. You weren’t trying to do anything wrong, but you should have paid more attention. Your mental state is the key. Your mental state was a little bit culpable, so you get punished a little bit.

We’ll punish you more if you were just being reckless. You weren’t trying to hurt someone, but you knew it could have happened, and you went ahead and did it anyway. Your mental state was more culpable, so you get punished more.

We’ll punish you a lot if you knew it was going to happen. It might not have been your purpose, you weren’t out to hurt someone, you were trying to do something else, but you knew that someone was probably going to get hurt in the process. Your mental state was a lot culpable, so you get punished a lot.

And of course, if you were really trying to hurt someone, and sure enough they got hurt, well then of course you get punished the most.

So all crimes (with limited exceptions for strict liability crimes) are thought crimes.

This hate-crime legislation is nothing more than a new twist on this very old concept. Just like with any other crime, it looks at what you, the perpetrator, thought you were doing. You had a belief about your victim, and because of that belief, you tried to hurt him.

It’s not your mental state about the risk of harm — as all the others are — it is different. It’s your mental state about the nature of your victim.

But that also makes perfect sense, in our jurisprudence.

-=-=-=-=-

Throughout our country’s history — from the fights against religious persecution, to the war against slavery, to women’s rights and the civil rights battles of the 1950s — we have come to accept a basic policy: IT IS BAD FOR SOCIETY WHEN PEOPLE ARE MISTREATED BASED ON ATTRIBUTES BEYOND THEIR CONTROL.

That is simply a no-brainer for anyone who loves freedom, individual rights, and equal justice. Americans cannot stand a bully, and will not tolerate those who hurt people for reasons their victims couldn’t help.

Nobody can help what race they happen to be. Nobody can help what religion they happen to have been born into. Nobody gets to choose whether to be born a boy or a girl. Nobody gets to choose what country they happen to have been born in.

Hurting someone because of uncontrollable attributes like these is a clear affront to society. Something we’d typically classify as a crime. It makes perfect sense to define a particular crime of hurting people because of personal attributes beyond their control.

And in recent years, our society has come to accept the fact that other attributes are also beyond our control. Nobody can help how their brains are wired with respect to sexual attraction, it’s inborn. Nobody can help the fact that they’re missing limbs, or are mentally retarded, or otherwise disabled — wouldn’t they if they could?

For our entire lifetime, there has been federal hate-crime legislation. The 1969 law covered race, color, religion, ethnicity and national origin. In later years, we added sex and disability. It makes perfect sense to now expand the already-existing law to include crimes committed against people who happen to be gay, or who were born with a girl’s brain in a boy’s body.

This is not giving extra protections to these people. It is giving extra punishment to those who would hurt someone simply for having been born. Those offenders cause extra harm to society, more than the already grievous harm caused by “ordinary” murders, rapes and assaults. Extra harm to society means extra punishment.

It’s as simple as that.

-=-=-=-=-

Here is the relevant text of the bill.

Sec. 249. Hate crime acts

(a) In General-

““`(1) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, OR NATIONAL ORIGIN- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person–

“““““(A) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

“““““(B) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

“““““““`(i) death results from the offense; or
“““““““`(ii) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

““`(2) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY, OR DISABILITY-

“““““(A) IN GENERAL- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B) or paragraph (3), willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person–

“““““““`(i) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

“““““““`(ii) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

“““““““““(I) death results from the offense; or

“““““““““(II) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

“““““(B) CIRCUMSTANCES DESCRIBED- For purposes of subparagraph (A), the circumstances described in this subparagraph are that–

“““““““`(i) the conduct described in subparagraph (A) occurs during the course of, or as the result of, the travel of the defendant or the victim–

“““““““““(I) across a State line or national border; or

“““““““““(II) using a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce;

“““““““`(ii) the defendant uses a channel, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce in connection with the conduct described in subparagraph (A);

“““““““`(iii) in connection with the conduct described in subparagraph (A), the defendant employs a firearm, dangerous weapon, explosive or incendiary device, or other weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce; or

“““““““`(iv) the conduct described in subparagraph (A)–

“““““““““ (I) interferes with commercial or other economic activity in which the victim is engaged at the time of the conduct; or

“““““““““(II) otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.

““`(3) OFFENSES OCCURRING IN THE SPECIAL MARITIME OR TERRITORIAL JURISDICTION OF THE UNITED STATES- Whoever, within the special maritime or territorial jurisdiction of the United States, engages in conduct described in paragraph (1) or in paragraph (2)(A) (without regard to whether that conduct occurred in a circumstance described in paragraph (2)(B)) shall be subject to the same penalties as prescribed in those paragraphs.

(b) Certification Requirement-

““`(1) IN GENERAL- No prosecution of any offense described in this subsection may be undertaken by the United States, except under the certification in writing of the Attorney General, or a designee, that–

“““““(A) the State does not have jurisdiction;

“““““(B) the State has requested that the Federal Government assume jurisdiction;

“““““(C) the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence; or

“““““(D) a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.

““`(2) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION- Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to limit the authority of Federal officers, or a Federal grand jury, to investigate possible violations of this section.

(c) Definitions- In this section–

““`(1) the term `bodily injury’ has the meaning given such term in section 1365(h)(4) of this title, but does not include solely emotional or psychological harm to the victim;

““`(2) the term `explosive or incendiary device’ has the meaning given such term in section 232 of this title;

““`(3) the term `firearm’ has the meaning given such term in section 921(a) of this title;

““`(4) the term `gender identity’ means actual or perceived gender-related characteristics; and

““`(5) the term `State’ includes the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and any other territory or possession of the United States.

(d) Statute of Limitations-

““`(1) OFFENSES NOT RESULTING IN DEATH- Except as provided in paragraph (2), no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense under this section unless the indictment for such offense is found, or the information for such offense is instituted, not later than 7 years after the date on which the offense was committed.

““`(2) DEATH RESULTING OFFENSES- An indictment or information alleging that an offense under this section resulted in death may be found or instituted at any time without limitation.’.

How the Court Should Rule in Shatzer

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

The Supreme Court heard a very important argument this week in the case of Maryland v. Shatzer. It was one of those situations where the oral argument makes a huge difference in the outcome of the case. We read the briefs earlier this month, and remarked to colleagues that both sides’ arguments seemed eminently reasonable. So reasonable that we couldn’t form a strong opinion either way.

But the oral arguments convinced us thoroughly: Both sides are stupid.

-=-=-=-=-

The case involves custodial interrogation, and whether and when it can be started again after someone has asked for a lawyer.

When someone is in custody, and they ask for a lawyer, interrogation is supposed to stop. If the police keep questioning anyway, then the defendant’s answers cannot be used to prove the case against him.

So even if someone confesses to the crime at that point, the confession cannot be used to prove he did it. Even if there is no evidence of duress, and there is every reason to believe that the confession is perfectly reliable, it cannot be used.

The underlying policy is that our criminal justice system puts a greater value on not overriding someone’s free will. We don’t want people to be forced to hang themselves. Getting into someone’s mind, and making them testify against themselves, against their will, is abhorrent to us. It reeks of torture, the Inquisition and Star Chamber.

That explains why custodial interrogation gets the Miranda rights, but there is no similar concern with taking non-testimonial evidence from someone against their will. A breathalyzer, a blood test, a voice exemplar, a vial of spit — we don’t really care whether you want to provide the evidence or not. The evidence exists independently of your free will. But a confession during interrogation is solely a matter of free will.

And confessions are dramatic evidence, to be sure. Once evidence of a confession comes in at trial, it’s nigh impossible for a jury to think the defendant didn’t do it. It’s a game-ending bit of evidence, in most cases.

Police custody, in and of itself, is such an extreme and distressing situation that the law just presumes it to be coercive. If an objectively reasonable person would not have thought he was free to leave, then he’s being compelled to sit there and deal with the cops. There’s compulsion, because the cops can keep questioning you until you break, and confess. Maybe it’s a true confession, and maybe you’re just saying it to make it all stop, but either way your free will was overridden.

And so we have the Miranda rule, which says that defendants must be informed of their right to remain silent and the right to have a lawyer present during any custodial questioning. If someone’s questioned in custody without being given these warnings — even if they’re a respected jurist who already knew them — then his answers cannot be used against him. And if he is given the warnings, and exercises his right to remain silent or his right to counsel, but the police keep questioning him, then his answers cannot be used against him.

If the defendant says he won’t talk without a lawyer present, then allquestioning must cease. This is a per se exclusion, period. The police cannot re-start questioning unless the defendant himself initiates further discussion. Unlike the right to silence, which can be waived down the road after new Mirandawarnings, the right to a lawyer once asserted can never be waived again, no matter how many times the police re-Mirandize him. It can only be waived if the attorney is actually present at the time. That’s the principal rule of Edwards.

(Note that asking for a lawyer here is the same as saying you won’t talk without a lawyer present. Unlike the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, where once you’ve actually been charged with a crime you’re entitled to have a lawyer provided, this is the Fifth Amendment right to counsel. The cops don’t have to get you a lawyer, they just have to stop questioning you until you get one.)

This is a bright-line rule. Our jurisprudence likes bright-line rules here. We don’t want the cops to have to think about what they can and cannot do; we want them to know. We don’t want a balancing test of competing principles, because that means the courts would have to get involved and decide what can and cannot be done. It would have to be decided after the fact, on a case-by-case basis. Without a bright-line rule, the police would probably engage in more improper interrogations than otherwise, because who knows what some judge down the road might think was okay? And who knows whether the case would even get that far?

So bright-line rules here protect defendants’ interests, police interests, and the courts’ interests. And Edwards is nothing if not a bright-line rule.

The problem with bright-line rules is that they are absolute, they have no exceptions, and so unless they are narrowly-tailored they can have absurd results.

And that is why this week the Supreme Court heard the case of Maryland v. Shatzer.

-=-=-=-=-

Six years ago, Michael Shatzer was in state prison, serving a lengthy sentence. Meanwhile, a social worker got a report that Shatzer had (before going to prison, obviously) forced his then-three-year-old son to perform fellatio on him. The social worker told the cops, and an officer came to the prison to talk to Shatzer about it.

Shatzer was taken to an interrogation room, and was given his Miranda rights. Shatzer asked for a lawyer, and the officer ended the interrogation. The officer went away, and Shatzer was taken out of the interrogation room and returned to his regular custody. The investigation was eventually closed.

Nearly three years passed. Shatzer remained in prison.

Now his son was a few years older, and was able to give more details about what had happened to him. The police began a new investigation, which was assigned to a new police officer.

The new officer went to the prison, Shatzer was taken to the interrogation room, and the officer Mirandized him.

This time, Shatzer waived his rights, and agreed to speak with the officer. He flatly denied the allegations that he had forced his son to perform fellatio on him. But he did admit to having masturbated in front of his little boy.

A few days later, the questioning continued. Shatzer was Mirandized again, and he again waived his rights. He took a polygraph test and failed it. Then he started crying and said “I didn’t force him. I didn’t force him.”

At this point, he finally asked for a lawyer, and the questioning ended.

Shatzer was prosecuted for sexually abusing his son. He tried to suppress his statements, on the grounds that he should never have been questioned the second time, under the Edwards rule. He’d asked for a lawyer, and that per se prohibition never evaporated.

The trial court said no, the statements could come in, because the intervening three years constituted a “break in custody” that ended the Edwards prohibition on further questioning. Custody had ended, so the compulsory situation had gone away. The new questioning was a new custodial interrogation justifying a new Miranda warning that was properly waived.

After Shatzer got convicted, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed. The appellate court held that the passage of time cannot constitute a break in custody. The court held that, if there is a break-in-custody exception to Edwards, it first of all would have to mean something different than the break-in-custody exception for the right to remain silent, and secondly it wouldn’t have existed here anyway when Shatzer had remained in prison the whole time.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Edwards prohibition must evaporate over time, so that a substantial lapse of time between interrogations would allow the cops to re-Mirandize and try again. The point of Edwards is to prevent the cops from “badgering” a defendant into answering questions without a lawyer, the state said. (At the end of its brief, Maryland even suggested that the bright-line rule ought to be overturned.)

Shatzer’s brief argued that the bright-line rule had to be maintained, to ensure that defendants aren’t coerced into making confessions. If a defendant asks for a lawyer, and all he gets is another reading of his rights, he’s hardly going to expect a second request for a lawyer to be effective, and so he might as well speak. It would undermine the whole point. And if a “break in custody” is all it takes to restart the Edwards rule, then all the cops would have to do is release, rearrest and repeat until the defendant finally gave in.

-=-=-=-=-

Both merits briefs seemed eminently reasonable.

But the oral arguments were frankly idiotic. Both sides made absolutely unreasonable claims that could only undermine their arguments.

For example, Chief Justice Roberts let Maryland’s A.G. get three sentences out before cutting to the point: “A break in custody of one day, do you think that should be enough?” Maryland’s response: Yes.

Roberts pressed on: “So what if it’s repeatedly done? You know, you bring him in, you give him his Miranda rights, he says ‘I don’t want to talk,’ you let him go. You bring him in, give him his Miranda rights, he says ‘I don’t want to talk.” You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says ‘all right, I’ll talk.” Maryland’s response: “We would suggest that the break of custody would be the end of the Edwards irrebuttable presumption.”

Shatzer’s position was even worse, if you can believe it.

The Public Defender opened her mouth to speak, and Justice Alito jumped down her throat. Her first words were that the Court couldn’t create any exceptions to the rule. Alito said, hold on, let’s say “someone is taken into custody in Maryland in 1999 and questioned for joy riding, [invokes his right to counsel, is] released from custody, and then in 2009 is taken into custody and questioned for murder in Montana…. Now does the Edwards rule apply to the second interrogation?” The lawyer’s response: “Yes it does, Justice Alito.”

As one might expect, the justices went to town on the lawyers. Scalia, as usual, got in some good laugh lines at their expense. We’ll leave the entire oral argument to your own reading enjoyment (you can read it here), but these opening exchanges sum it up pretty well.

Maryland’s position is idiotic. They want a bright-line rule that any break in custody ends the Edwards prohibition. It would allow precisely the catch-and-release badgering that Roberts suggested. They argued that, during the release period, if the defendant didn’t go out and get a lawyer, then they’ve essentially revoked the request to have an attorney present at any future questioning.

Shatzer’s position is equally idiotic, if not more so. He wants a bright-line rule that any invocation of the right to counsel essentially immunizes a defendant from any further police questioning in any subsequent action anywhere, for the rest of his life, whether or not the police could have even known about his prior invocation of the right. A police officer in Alaska would have to ascertain whether a suspect had ever been interrogated by police anywhere else in the country at any time in the suspect’s life, and whether the suspect had asked for a lawyer then. That’s flatly impossible and unrealistic.

Both of the parties claim that the existing bright-line rule might create absurdities in theory. To prevent them, they each propose reductio ad absurdum rules at the extreme ends of the spectrum, guaranteed to create absurdities in practice. Well done, folks.

(The lawyer for the United States, as amicus, did make an important point — that the whole purpose is to make sure people aren’t being compelled to incriminate themselves against their will — but the rest of his time was eaten up by nonsense about how long a break in custody would count as enough of a break to evaporate an assertion of the right to counsel.)

-=-=-=-=-

So what should the rule actually be? Seriously, this is not rocket surgery here. The answer seems perfectly obvious:

1) If a suspect was in custody, was read his Miranda rights, and invoked his Fifth Amendment right to have a lawyer present during questioning…

2) And if there was a break in custody, so that an objectively reasonable person would have felt free to leave his questioners…

3) Then there is a rebuttable presumption that his invoked right to counsel continues to be invoked with respect to any subsequent questioning about the same underlying allegations.

4) The state can rebut this presumption with facts that demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that the suspect no longer desired the presence of counsel during questioning. (This will necessarily be extremely rare, though not at all inconceivable.)

The rule could be streamlined even further, by deleting the phrase “there is a rebuttable presumption that” from #3, and deleting #4 altogether.

This rule provides all the protections that defendants, law enforcement and the courts require. At the same time, it avoids the absurdities of the existing bright-line rule, and of the more extreme bright-line rules proposed by the parties in this case.

Ninth Circuit Bungles Math, Can the Supremes Fix It?

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Prosecutor's Fallacy

The “Prosecutor’s Fallacy” is one example of why we think Statistics should be a required course in college. Let’s say the police have the DNA of a rapist. Only 1 in 3,000,000 people chosen at random will match that DNA sample. Your DNA matches. At your trial, the DNA expert testifies that you have only a 1 in 3,000,000 chance of being innocent. That is not correct, however. That’s an example of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy.

Yes, there is a very small chance that someone’s DNA would match if they were innocent. But that is not the same as saying there’s a very small chance that someone is innocent if their DNA matches.

This is basic conditional probability. And if you think about it, it’s just common sense. What you’re doing is switching the conditions around, and leaving the result unchanged. You can’t expect to change the conditions and not change the result.

To illustrate with an extreme example, we drew the picture you see above. A black circle indicates a DNA match. All guilty people are going to have a DNA match, obviously. And a tiny fraction of innocent people are going to have a DNA match, as well. But if the number of innocent people is large enough, then the number of innocent people whose DNA matches could actually be larger than the number of guilty people. Someone whose DNA matches is actually more likely to be innocent in that scenario.

-=-=-=-=-

Prosecutors and DNA experts aren’t the only ones who get this wrong. Courts do, too. The Ninth Circuit recently made a hash of it in their decision in McDaniel v. Brown, which will now be one of the first cases to be heard by the Supreme Court at the start of this year’s October term.

In McDaniel v. Brown, Troy Brown was prosecuted for the alleged rape of a little girl. The facts are pretty gruesome, but irrelevant here. What’s relevant is that, at his trial, the DNA expert testified that Brown’s DNA matched the DNA in the semen found on the girl, that there was a 1 in 3,000,000 chance that someone’s DNA would match, and that therefore there was a 1 in 3,000,000 chance that Brown was innocent.

Brown got convicted. He later brought a habeas petition to the District Court. He introduced a professor’s explanation of how the prosecution had screwed up. The District Court expanded the record to include the professor’s explanation, and found that the DNA expert had engaged in the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. In part because of that (there was also a chance it could have been his brother’s DNA), the District Court found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict.

The government appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Now, the Ninth is known for being touchy-feely. It’s not known for its analytical prowess. Posner, they ain’t. But they bravely tackled this statistical conundrum. And they screwed up.

In trying to deal with the prosecution’s error, the Ninth swung too far in the other direction, finding that the DNA evidence at Brown’s trial couldn’t establish guilt, period. No jury could have found Brown guilty.

So the government took it to the Supreme Court, making two arguments. One is procedural — that the habeas court shouldn’t have been able to consider the professor’s explanations, but only the trial record, in determining the sufficiency of the evidence before the jury. The other argument is that even though the chances of Brown being innocent weren’t 1 in 3,000,000 they were still pretty damn low, and the DNA evidence is still plenty sufficient.

Brown’s lawyers, to their credit, don’t seem to be arguing that the Ninth Circuit did it right. Instead of characterizing the decision below as ruling on the sufficiency of the evidence, Brown’s attorneys argue that it was really a Due Process ruling. The testimony wasn’t so much insufficient as it was incorrect. It was unreliable. This is bolstered by the fact that the Ninth Circuit ordered a new trial (which Double Jeopardy would preclude after a finding of insufficient evidence, but which is standard after a Due Process finding of unreliable evidence.)

That’s not the way the Ninth characterized its ruling, however, so Brown wisely suggested that the Supreme Court might simply kick the case back for the Circuit to explain its ruling better.

-=-=-=-=-

Oral arguments are scheduled for October 13. We haven’t made any predictions yet about the upcoming term, so we’ll start here.

We think the state will convince Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsberg and Alito of the following:

(1) The Ninth Circuit improperly remanded for a new trial, which is improper after a finding of insufficiency; and

(2) At any rate, the Circuit improperly found the evidence to be insufficient, when there was plenty of evidence of guilt.

We think that Justices Stevens and Breyer (we have no clue about Sotomayor) will dissent, arguing that the jury was totally thrown by the DNA expert’s mischaracterization, that this was a Due Process violation at the very least, and that the DNA evidence probably should have been thrown out entirely, so the Ninth Circuit should be reversed and the District Court’s original ruling should be reinstated.

What are the odds that we’re really right? Who wants to do the math?

Dersh Being Disingenuous

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

dershscalia

We love Alan Dershowitz. And we love Justice Scalia. So at first we were intrigued to hear that Dersh had challenged Scalia to a debate over his recent dissent in Davis. (See our post on it here.)

But it turns out that Dersh is just being disingenuous. Pity.

Quick recap: Davis was convicted of a murder. Since then, several witnesses have recanted. He filed a habeas petition directly with the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, passed it on to the District Court to decide whether Davis really is innocent. Justice Scalia dissented, saying that the District Court doesn’t have the power to do anything, even if it does find him innocent.

The reason why Scalia said that — and he really does have a point — is because the law in question only lets the District Court act if there is well-settled Supreme Court precedent allowing it. Scalia pointed out the simple fact, known to any death penalty scholar, that there is zero Supreme Court precedent on this issue. And that is because the Supreme Court has gone out of its way to avoid ever deciding one way or the other whether there is a constitutional claim of actual innocence.

Here’s what Scalia said:

This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.

That clearly means nothing more nor less than that the Supreme Court simply hasn’t decided the issue yet.

Now of course there have been plenty of bloggers out there who have mischaracterized and misinterpreted this to mean that Scalia thinks it’s constitutional to execute someone who is actually innocent, so long as their trial wasn’t otherwise defective. That’s not what he said, but there are many who find it easy to believe that he did say that. And there are many more who just don’t get the concept. That’s fine, because those bloggers aren’t highly respected constitutional scholars.

But Dersh is a highly respected constitutional scholar. He has no excuse for misinterpreting what Scalia said. And yet that is exactly what Dersh did in his blog post today on The Daily Beast.

Dersh said he never thought he would see the day when a Justice of the Supreme Court would write an opinion containing the quotation above. Then he explained what he says Scalia meant:

Let us be clear precisely what this means. If a defendant were convicted, after a constitutionally unflawed trial, of murdering his wife, and then came to the Supreme Court with his very much alive wife at his side, and sought a new trial based on newly discovered evidence (namely that his wife was alive), these two justices would tell him, in effect: “Look, your wife may be alive as a matter of fact, but as a matter of constitutional law, she’s dead, and as for you, Mr. Innocent Defendant, you’re dead, too, since there is no constitutional right not to be executed merely because you’re innocent.”

That is absolutely not what Scalia was saying, and Dershowitz ought to know that. He created a straw man, then spent an entire blog post arguing against it.

That was bad enough. But then Dersh made it worse, by challenging Scalia to debate him on it. Dershowitz pointed out that Scalia has publicly promised that, if the Constitution ever compels him to act in violation of the mandates of his Catholic faith, he will resign as a Justice instead. And Scalia has also stated that he could not authorize an execution if he believed it would be immoral.

So Dershowitz says the stakes of their debate would be high: If Scalia loses, he’d either have to change his jurisprudence, or he’d have to resign from the Supreme Court.

But Dersh challenges Scalia to defend a position that Scalia has never taken, that “his constitutional views [permit] the execution of factually innocent defendants.”

And though Dersh imposes high stakes on the man he challenges, he imposes none on himself. If he loses, he loses nothing.

So our favorite constitutional scholar has challenged someone to defend a position he never took, with extreme penalties for losing, and at no risk to himself? Badly done, Dersh. Bad form.

-=-=-=-=-

And by the by, the majority in Davis has tried to force the issue. Whichever way the District Court goes on this, it’s coming back to the Supreme Court, so they may well have to decide once and for all whether there is a constitutional claim of actual innocence. They may not, because this isn’t the strongest case of innocence — it’s a he-said-he-said situation with witnesses who merely recanted testimony — and so they may have other grounds to avoid the issue.

But if they do decide the issue, we have no trouble predicting that Scalia would opine that the our law does provide for a claim of actual innocence. He’d probably refer to the fact that English courts going back to the Middle Ages widely accepted the principle that innocence trumps other considerations. He’d probably quote Fortescue and Blackstone. He could well throw in the maxims of tutius semper est errare in acquietando quam in puniendo, ex parte misericordiae, quam ex parte justiae, and of prestat reum nocentum absolve, quam ex prohibitis indiciis & illegitima probatione condemnari. Heck, if he’s feeling mischievous, he might even cite the rules of Star Chamber (such as In Camera Stellata, 29 April 1607, in Court of Star Chamber, Les Reportes del Cases in Camera Stellata 1593 to 1620).

We wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And Dersh shouldn’t be, either.

MySpace Judge Agrees with Us

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

 

Remember the Lori Drew case? She’s the mom who was convicted last Thanksgiving for creating a fake MySpace persona, which she then used to harass a teenaged girl until the girl committed suicide.

After she was convicted, we argued that her conviction stretched the meaning of the statute too far. Here’s what we wrote:

The underlying statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, is a federal law intended to prevent hacking. Drew created a fictitious MySpace account, which was used to harass the girl. In doing so, Drew violated MySpace’s terms of service, though she apparently never read them. By violating the terms of service, Drew got unauthorized access to MySpace’s servers, and the prosecution went out on a limb to argue that this technically violated the CFAA.

But does it really?

Plenty of pundits are now doubting that the verdict will survive an appeal. Congress clearly intended the law to criminalize hacking into someone else’s computer. That’s different from creating a fictitious screen name — a very common and socially acceptable occurrence.

Terms of service are conditions imposed by websites which govern permissible use, and which almost always prescribe penalties that may be imposed for violations. These penalties normally range from warnings and temporary disabling of access, to permanent denial of access. The relationship is essentially contractual.

But if the prosecution’s theory is upheld on appeal, then breaching such conditions would have criminal consequences.

Criminalizing this kind of behavior isn’t exactly far-fetched. Crime is essentially that behavior which society considers so threatening that the guilty must be punished with a restriction on liberty or a loss of property. The existence of a civil remedy does not preclude something from being criminal — a thief is civilly liable to return what he stole, but still faces jail regardless. And there may be something to an argument for criminalizing the false personas on social networking sites frequented by minors, to protect society from predators.

But that’s clearly not what Congress was trying to do here. Furthermore, the prosecution’s stretched interpretation is just too overbroad. Rather than being narrowly tailored to focus on those who violate the TOS of a child-used site for the purpose of committing a nefarious or dangerous crime, the prosecution’s theory simply criminalizes all violations of any site’s TOS agreement. A court of appeals is likely to find that an improper application of the law.

Lori Drew was scheduled to be sentenced today. (Well, technically yesterday. Thursday. We’re still working, so it’s still Thursday to us.)

But she wasn’t sentenced. Instead, Judge Wu threw out her conviction. According to CNN, he refused to uphold the jury’s verdict because the guilty verdict would set a bad precedent that anyone who violates a site’s TOS could also be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Criminalizing all violations of a site’s TOS agreement is not what the law is designed to do. Because it technically allows such improper application of the law, it is probably unconstitutional for vagueness.

This was just an oral decision. Wu is expected to issue his written decision soon.

Great minds think alike!

Defense to Win All Remaining Supreme Court Cases

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

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With only two more decision dates remaining in this Supreme Court term, we’ve got our eyes on four criminal cases yet to be decided. Either next Monday (June 22) or the following Monday (June 29), we should expect to hear from the Supremes.

We’re going to make a prediction right now that all four cases will be decided in favor of the defense. Furthermore, we predict large majorities or unanimous decisions in each case. (Go ahead and laugh, we’ll wait for you.)

The four cases are:

Safford USD v. Redding, No. 08-479. We talked about this one before (see here). A public school had an absurd zero-tolerance policy (surprise, surprise), this time prohibiting prescription Advil. A girl got caught with some. She blamed someone else (surprise, surprise). School authorities confronted the other girl, Redding, who denied being involved. They searched her backpack, and found nothing. They searched her clothes, and found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person might have figured out that the girl who was caught with the actual pills was trying to pull a fast one here. But these were not reasonable people — they were public school officials. So they had Redding — a 13-year-old girl — expose her breasts and vagina. They found no pills. Then they shook out her underwear, and found nothing. Then both the school nurse and another school official physically searched the girl’s body. They found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person would have surely figured out that there was nothing to see here. But these bright bulbs instead stuck the girl in the principal’s office alone for a few hours, didn’t contact her folks, and didn’t bother searching anyone else.

The girl sued, claiming (surprise, surprise) that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

The Supreme Court has now been asked to decide whether public school officials are permitted by the Fourth Amendment to perform a warrantless strip search of a student whom they merely suspect of possessing forbidden contraband.

The school wants the Court to say yes, schools can perform strip searches any time they have reason to suspect that a student has forbidden contraband. They want a rule that doesn’t let judges second-guess the judgment of school officials.

Our prediction is that the Court isn’t going to grant such a bright-line rule. For the reasons we set out in our previous post, we predict that the Court will require a case-by-case analysis. It will be fact-specific, whether the officials have evidence that is sufficiently credible to justify an articulable suspicion that contraband will be found during a strip search. And it will require a balancing, to ensure that the invasiveness of the search is proportionate to the danger of the contraband sought. A strip-search to find an explosive is one thing; but examining a young girl’s private parts to find Advil is another thing entirely.

* * * * *

The next case we’re looking for is Yeager v. United States, No. 08-67.

The issue in Yeager is collateral estoppel after a hung jury. Specifically, a jury acquitted on some counts, and hung on other counts, all sharing a common element. Perhaps the only explanation for the acquittals is that the jury decided that common element in the defendant’s favor. So is the government prevented from re-trying the hung counts, by collateral estoppel?

Yeager was an executive with Enron’s telecom unit, charged with 176 white-collar crimes. After a three-month-long trial, the jury acquitted him on the counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud. But the jury hung on the counts of insider trading and money laundering.

The Fifth Circuit said that one explanation for the acquittals is that the jury found that Yeager had no inside information. That was also an element of the insider trading count. But the Circuit said it was impossible to determine “with any certainty what the jury” actually must have decided. So that meant there could be no collateral estoppel precluding a new trial.

At oral argument, Justice Souter honed in on the real issue here, which is a conflict between two underlying principles of our current jurisprudence. On the one hand, once a jury has determined a fact, the government doesn’t get a second chance to prove it. On the other hand, the government is permitted a full opportunity to convict, so it is allowed to re-try counts where a jury hung. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Breyer explored the conflicting principles in greater depth. Although the government’s attorney was more deft at handling the philosophical argument, and Yeager’s attorney seemed to be stuck in a surface argument, it seemed by the end that the Court was siding with Yeager.

What seems to have killed the government’s position here was its assertion that acquittals should not affect retrials if they are not “rational” — meaning they are inconsistent with the jury’s remaining outcomes — and that a hung count is an outcome that can be used to determine whether the actual verdicts were rational. That not only conflicts with precedent that permits inconsistent verdicts, but also defies common sense by treating the absence of a decision as an affirmative determination.

This one’s a tossup, but we’re going to predict a ruling in favor of Yeager here.

* * * * *

The third case to watch for is District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, No. 08-6.

Osborne was convicted 14 years ago for kidnapping and sexual assault. The victim was brutally assaulted and raped in a remote area in Alaska. Osborne was alleged to have used a blue condom. A blue condom was found at the scene, containing semen. Osborne now wants to get discovery of the semen, and have DNA testing done at his own expense, in the hopes that it will demonstrate his innocence. The State of Alaska refused.

Osborne brought a 42 U.S.C. §1983 civil rights suit, arguing that Alaska’s refusal violated his Due Process rights. The district court dismissed the suit, saying he should have brought a Habeas claim instead.

The Ninth Circuit issued two decisions. The first was that a §1983 suit is fine here, because the outcome would not necessarily undermine the state-court conviction. The DNA evidence could potentially prove his guilt, or be inconclusive. It would only require Habeas if the evidence would have to demonstrate innocence. And he could still bring a Habeas later if the §1983 action fails.

In its second decision, the Ninth Circuit forced the Supreme Court’s hand. The Supremes have long taken pains to avoid deciding whether a convict can overturn his conviction based only on a claim of innocence, rather than on pointing out defects in the way the trial was conducted. But the Ninth assumed that this is permissible.

Then, based on that assumption, the Ninth said that in circumstances like that — in fact, only in circumstances like that — where a convict could later use the evidence in a freestanding innocence claim, then Brady gives a post-conviction right to access potentially favorable evidence.

The Supreme Court is now deciding both issues: whether the §1983 suit is appropriate for accessing DNA evidence post-conviction, and whether Due Process requires such access if it could establish innocence.

At oral argument, Justice Souter barely let the Alaska A.G. get a word out before launching a lengthy debate over whether Osborne merely sought evidence that might or might not allow him to establish a claim later, or whether he sought evidence that he affirmatively believes will be the basis of a claim of innocence. By the end, both Scalia and Ginsburg had gotten involved, and the Chief Justice was wondering whether the State even had the evidence any more. Breyer got everyone back on track, pointing out that §1983 was appropriate when you didn’t know what the evidence was yet, and Habeas is appropriate when you do know. And here, nobody knows what the DNA evidence is, yet. So how come the State doesn’t have a constitutional obligation to give him the DNA?

The AG gave a terrible response, saying that Osborne simply followed the wrong procedure. Half the bench jumped in to interrupt him, dumbfounded at the assertion, given that Alaska doesn’t have a statutory procedure in the first place. The one statute out there (as Scalia pointed out) first requires an assertion that the evidence establishes innocence, which is the one thing nobody can say yet, because it hasn’t been tested yet. Souter and Scalia tag-teamed the AG on that mercilessly. At one point, Scalia had the audience laughing at the AG. For the rest of the oral argument, the Justices would refer to the fact that they “must have missed” this procedure being mentioned in any of the briefs.

By the end of the AG’s time, nobody had even gotten to the juicy issues yet. Breyer tried to give the AG a chance to talk about it, but the AG just went back to his procedural claim that had used up his time already. This only frustrated the Justices.

The U.S., as amicus to Alaska, started off better, getting to the heart of the issue — the issue the Supreme Court has so long avoided — arguing that prisoners do not have the right to challenge their conviction based on a freestanding claim of actual innocence. But Souter suggested that the right may be found, “not in procedural, but in substantive Due Process,” and asked a hypothetical about letting counsel speak to another prisoner who claims to have exonerating evidence. The Deputy S.G. floundered, and got laughed at as well. They never even got to the constitutional issue (as Souter repeatedly pointed out), and got mired in whether the government even has an interest here in the first place. And then time was up.

Osborne’s lawyer did much better. He deflected the Court’s concerns that at trial the defense had chosen not to test the DNA, and thus must have believed it would show guilt, by pointing out that both sides chose not to test it, because the tests available would have destroyed all of the evidence, precluding later testing.

The Justices across the board expressed concern that they were being asked to create a new constitutional right here. Shouldn’t a prisoner have to make a claim, under penalty of perjury, that he is actually innocent first? Shouldn’t there be a requirement of due diligence, so that claims aren’t made years and years after they could have been brought? Osborne’s attorney admitted that those are fine ideas, and wouldn’t be an obstacle here.

Then Scalia tipped his hand a little. Osborne’s lawyer observed that this is the first case where a prosecutor conceded that DNA would be “absolutely slam-dunk dispositive of innocence,” but doesn’t let the prisoner access it. Scalia thought out loud, “you know, it is very strange. Why did they do that, I wonder?” “Well, it’s very…” Scalia interrupted, “there was a lot of other evidence in the case, wasn’t there?” “Well, that’s…” Scalia cut in, “I don’t know what they thought they were doing.”

Scalia, for one, is not likely to side with the DA’s office here.

Souter came back to his conclusion that this is a substantive Due Process issue, which would require that the prisoner first claim that he is actually innocent. This conflicted with the sworn testimony before the Parole Board admitting guilt. But Breyer pointed out that prisoners often wisely admit guilt before such Boards, because they’re not getting out otherwise. (As defense lawyers like to say, forget guilt or innocence, “out is out.”) So relying on Parole Board admissions would be an arbitrary basis for withholding DNA evidence. So “suppose we said that the rule is non-arbitrary, with illustrations. Send it back to the states. And of course, when they apply their own statutes, by and large they’re not being arbitrary.” Osborne’s counsel agreed, “I think that’s a very sound approach to this.” Breyer responded, “well, it does help you win.”

I don’t think Breyer or Souter are siding with Alaska here, either.

The Chief Justice wondered if the right would be depend on the accuracy of the testing available. No, said Osborne’s lawyer, it has nothing to do with it — the right would just prohibit the state from arbitrarily preventing access to evidence. So long as there’s a reasonable probability that the test will demonstrate evidence, then that should be enough.

On rebuttal, the AAG got maybe three words in edgewise.

So just going from the oral argument, we’re going to predict a loss for Alaska.

Now whether that means a whole new constitutional right or not, well we’re not so sure. This only affects a handful of defendants whose convictions came before the Federal Innocence Protection Act in the mid-1990s.

The trick, though, will be whether the Court can continue to avoid the elephant in the room, the issue of whether one can assert a freestanding claim of innocence. The Ninth Circuit made it a prerequisite, and both the liberal and conservative Justices seemed to put a lot of weight on whether the prisoner first asserted innocence.

We predict that the Court is going to go all the way here. And as long as we’re going out on a limb, we’ll also predict a unanimous decision.

* * * * *

The final criminal case yet to be decided is also the oldest: Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.

The issue is straightforward: Is a lab report, by itself, a form of testimony for Confrontation Clause purposes, per Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004)?

Crawford says you can’t introduce earlier statements of a government witness, if they hadn’t been subject to cross-examination.

Well, a police lab report wasn’t subject to cross-examination when it was created. But they are often admitted into evidence without live testimony from the chemist or forensic expert who made the report — they’re self-authenticating. If lab reports are testimonial, then Crawford would preclude this practice. If they are not testimonial, but merely a record, then they could continue to be admitted without live testimony.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court looked at this conundrum a couple times, and decided that drug analysis reports were simply records of “primary fact, with no judgment or discretion,” by the chemist who prepared them. So they weren’t testimonial, and there was no Confrontation Clause problem.

Melendez-Diaz was the defendant in the second such case, which affirmed the first one.

It’s a sure bet that Scalia is going to side with the defendant here. He has long been a champion of the Confrontation Clause, and his contributions at oral argument were true to form.

The Massachusetts AG was frankly an embarrassment, making inaccurate assertions (and being corrected by the Court), resting heavily on the lame argument that nobody’s made this particular claim before, and claiming that requiring chemists to testify would be an “undue burden,” even though it’s no such burden to California or New York or any other state where it’s routinely done at trial. Kennedy even coached the AG with arguments that she ought to have been making, and scolded her when she still didn’t make them.

Justices Kennedy, Scalia and Stevens had little patience for the amicus Assistant S.G., whose argument was that machine-generated reports aren’t testimonial. There’s a difference between an automated record and a computerized document created for the purpose of proving an element of a crime at trial. And they’re different from computerized documents reflecting the observations and conclusions of a human being.

Based on how the oral argument went, we’re going to predict yet another win for the defendant.

Mandatory DNA Sampling Constitutional. Expect Ruling to be Upheld.

Friday, May 29th, 2009

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In a decision sure to be fought before the 9th Circuit, a federal judge in the Eastern District of California yesterday upheld mandatory DNA collection from people merely arrested for federal felonies, regardless of the nature of the crime charged.

Obviously, this raises eyebrows in certain circles. Taking DNA from people who haven’t even been convicted yet? Taking DNA from people who aren’t suspected of committing crimes where DNA would even be relevant? Doesn’t this violate basic principles of our jurisprudence?

Well… and this is a defense attorney talking here… no.

The case is U.S. v. Pool, decided by Judge Gregory G. Hollows. The defendant was charged with possession of child porn, and was released on bond. One of the conditions of release was that he provide a DNA sample.

This requirement was mandatory under two federal laws: the Bail Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3142(b) and (c)(1)(A), which mandates it for pre-trial release; and the DNA Fingerprinting Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. § 14135a, which mandates it for everyone arrested on a federal felony charge.

DNA is usually collected by dabbing a cotton swab in the person’s mouth or something similar. Rarely, it is collected by a blood test. The DNA is to be used solely by law enforcement for identification purposes.

Pool argued that this warrantless DNA sampling violates the Fourth Amendment. It’s a search, there’s no warrant, and there’s no special need for the testing for nonviolent arrestees.

Judge Hollows rejected that argument, stating that every Circuit to consider the issue has held there to be no Fourth Amendment violation here, and that the criterion is not “special need” but rather the “totality of the circumstances.” The reasonableness “is determined by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy, and on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.”

Pool argued that pre-conviction sampling is improper, based on the Supreme Court cases Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 532 U.S. 67 (2001)(unconstitutional search for law enforcement to use hospital’s diagnostic test of pregnant patient to obtain evidence of drug use), and City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000)(vehicle checkpoint unconstitutional when primary purpose was to detect evidence of drug trafficking). Those cases relied on the “special need” analysis he suggested.

Judge Hollows rejected that as well, as those searches involved police fishing for evidence, before anyone was formally charged with a crime. The statutes at issue here subject people to DNA testing after a finding of probable cause by a judge or grand jury. After someone’s been indicted, courts can impose all kinds of restrictions on liberty. The situation is much more like that of people who have been convicted, than of people who have not yet been charged with anything, and so the “totality of the circumstances” test is more appropriate.

For more than 45 years, it’s been well-settled that someone who’s been arrested has a diminished expectation of privacy in his own identity. He can be compelled to give fingerprints, have his mug shot taken, and give ID information. DNA is no different than fingerprints — a unique identifier that helps law enforcement find the right suspect, and eliminate the wrong suspect. In fact, DNA is more precise than photos or fingerprints, so the government interest in obtaining it is even stronger.

Meanwhile, the invasiveness is minimal. Even blood tests are considered “commonplace, safe, and do not constitute an unduly extensive imposition on an individual’s privacy and bodily integrity.” Oral swabs are considered no more physically invasive than taking fingerprints.

The judge also rejected arguments that DNA evidence, once taken, might possibly be stolen and put to an impermissible use. That risk applies to everything, and there are criminal penalties to deter it. Just because someone might break the law doesn’t mean the setup is improper.

Judge Hollows pointed out that all the same concerns being raised about DNA were raised in the early part of the 20th Century with respect to fingerprints. And since at least 1932 it’s been understood that the public interest far outweighs the minimal burden to the individual being fingerprinted. The same reasons that justify post-arrest fingerprinting without a warrant justify post-arrest DNA sampling without a warrant.

Pool also argued that this violates Fifth Amendment procedural due process, because it’s mandatory, and thus precludes an opportunity to be heard. But that only applies if the defendant’s privacy rights outweigh the government interest, and it’s the other way around here. Pool argued that there is a risk of erroneous deprivation of his privacy interest, for arrestees who are not ultimately convicted. But the system is set up to expunge DNA records if the person is exonerated or the charges are dismissed. So the risks are minimal, and the government interests are compelling, and that means there is no procedural due process problem.

Pool also argued that this violates the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive bail. Bail conditions have to be proportionate to the perceived government need requiring the condition. But the Supreme Court case that set this rule, U.S. v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739 (1987), specifically rejected any idea that this “categorically prohibits the government from pursuing other admittedly compelling interests through regulation of pretrial release.” This being nothing more than a booking procedure, and not comparable to conditions of release that actually have to do with the concerns arising from letting someone out on bail, there’s no reason to consider it excessive.

Pool also argued that the statutes violate the Separation of Powers, as Congress has intruded on judicial decision-making in the setting of bail conditions. But here, Congress didn’t direct any judicial findings. It merely directs what the judge needs to do after a certain finding has been made. That’s what Congress is supposed to do. There’s no problem there.

Poole finally argued that this is an unconstitutional extension of power, because the Commerce Clause doesn’t authorize DNA sampling. But the Commerce Clause lets the government make conduct a federal crime. The resulting government powers, such as incarceration and terms of release, have nothing to do with it, and don’t need to be independently authorized under the Commerce Clause.

* * * * *

What to make of this?

Pool’s arguments stem from a presumption that a person out on bail is more like a pre-arrest suspect. Judge Hollows’ decision stems from the opposite conclusion, that a person out on bail is more like a person on post-conviction supervised release. Any arguments before the 9th Circuit will have to focus on which it is, and we are inclined to believe that the Circuit will side with Judge Hollows here.

Central to the distinction is the fact that there has already been a judicial determination here, separating the defendant from the class of unarrested individuals. Either a judge or a jury has found that it is more likely than not that a federal felony was committed, and that this person did it. Once that has happened, a person’s rights are substantially changed. Society has an interest in ensuring that they come back to court to be judged. Society has an interest in ensuring that they don’t cause more harm in the meantime. These interests outweigh a defendant’s interests in liberty and property, to varying degree depending on the individual. That’s why we have bail and bail conditions.

What is odd, however, is that Congress made DNA sampling a mandatory bail condition, when it has nothing to do with pre-trial release.

Judge Hollows correctly points out that, conceptually, DNA sampling is no more invasive than fingerprinting, and is used for the same purposes. It’s a booking procedure, not a release consideration. Congress could just as easily have made DNA sampling a mandatory part of post-arrest processing, along with the mug shot and fingerprints. It would have been just as constitutionally sound.

By calling it something that it’s not, Congress subjected DNA sampling to this exact challenge.

Now, the ACLU differs with us, and calls the ruling “an incredible threat to civil liberties.”

“We think this ruling is incorrect,” ACLU attorney Michael Risher told reporters. “It ignores the presumption of innocence and it does not pay enough attention to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.” He also opined that police now have an incentive to make pretext arrests, just to get people’s DNA to help them solve crimes. How this changes things from the already-existing incentive to make pretext arrests to get fingerprints is unclear to this defense attorney. And anyway, police don’t need to arrest someone to get DNA or fingerprints — they can be collected by pretext in any number of ways, without a warrant, and often are.

With respect to the Fourth Amendment, what is clear here is that this is not a search for evidence. The crime has already been charged. It’s very clearly an administrative tool for establishing the identity of the defendant. Evidentiary consequences are merely hypothetical, if the person should somehow commit a violent crime in the future and leave behind DNA that gets compared to the database. That’s no different from mug shots, and unlike mug shots (where the chances of a false positive are unreasonably and embarrassingly high, given their variety and the innate unreliability of eyewitness recognition) DNA has an insignificant risk of identifying the wrong person. Mug shots aren’t a Fourth Amendment issue, neither are fingerprints, and neither is DNA, really.

* * * * *

One issue, however, is when the DNA is being taken for the purpose of gathering evidence, in the investigation of a crime.

That’s not the case here, and it’s sort of off point, but should a warrant even be involved then?

Well, isn’t it a Fifth Amendment violation then? You’re making someone incriminate himself against his will, right?

Wrong. Self-incrimination doesn’t enter into it, because what’s important there, the underlying policy of the right, is that we don’t want the government overriding people’s free will, and making them convict themselves out of their own mouths. We don’t want another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its overwhelming power to extort unwilling confessions, whether by thumbscrews, lead pipes, or simple custodial interrogation.

But taking blood samples has been held not to involve the right against compelled self-incrimination. Nobody’s being forced to say “I did it.” All they are being forced to do is provide physical evidence. There is no free will involved in the creation of that physical evidence — it exists whether the person wants to hand it over or not — but there is free will involved in the creation of confessions and incriminating statements.

But that brings us back to the Fourth Amendment. If someone is being compelled to give a swab or blood sample, then the government is seizing pre-existing evidence just as if they were seizing drugs from someone’s home. So shouldn’t a warrant be required after all?

Yes it should. But that’s only when the evidence is being sought as evidence. Constitutional rights really do depend on what’s going on. An administrative requirement is not the same thing as a criminal investigation. A DNA sample for administrative ID purposes is not the same thing as one taken to identify a potential suspect.

That’s the big difference here. And even given the 9th Circuit’s pro-defendant tendencies from time to time, we have a hard time predicting anything but an affirmation of Judge Hollows’ decision when this comes up on appeal.

Nat Hentoff Wrong on Rights? Say It Ain’t So!

Monday, May 11th, 2009

The clip above is from a speech Nat Hentoff gave a little while ago, summarizing some of the problems he has with hate crime legislation in general, and with the bill currently being rammed through Congress. The day after he gave that speech, we wrote in more detail about our own concerns with the law.

Although we do not like hate crimes any more than Mr. Hentoff does, we differ with him in that we don’t think they’re per se unconstitutional or inconsistent with American jurisprudence.

Hate crime laws stink because they fail to distinguish between criminal conduct and that which is merely nasty. They take something offensive, and call it an offense. That’s not what criminal law is for. The purpose of criminal law is to identify those acts that are not merely unpleasant, but which are so dangerous to society that they call out for the State to impose its might on the individual and punish him by taking away his life, liberty or property.

Now, there is a PC echo chamber that has a disproportionate voice in today’s government, and in that chamber “hate” really is seen as something requiring extra punishment. Commiting a crime with hate required more punishment than if you committed the same crime for some other reason. But outside of that echo chamber, the mainstream culture just doesn’t see a distasteful motive as a justification for extra punishment.

Hate crime laws also stink because they are inherently un-American. They’re something you’d more expect to see in continental Europe, where state dominion over the individual has been the norm since time out of mind, and there are fewer protections for offensive thoughts. Hate crimes are the stuff of the horror show that England has lately become, as London’s Mayor Boris Johnson writes today, complaining of an England with “its addiction to political correctness — where people are increasingly confused and panic-stricken about what they can say and what is forbidden, a culture where a police officer can seriously think he is right to arrest a protester for calling a police horse ‘gay.’ [England's] courts and tribunals are clogged with people claiming to have suffered insults of one kind or another, and a country once famous for free speech is now hysterically and expensively sensitive to anything that could be taken as a slight.” That is not the direction in which Americans tend to see themselves heading. Off campus, America simply is not a place where the ASBO could exist. And so it is not a place where hate crimes ought to exist.

That doesn’t mean such laws are necessarily inconsistent with the underlying principles of how we make criminal laws in general. They may not fit with American sensibilities, but they don’t violate our jurisprudence. As we wrote last time, the general idea of hate crimes is simply to add a new level of mens rea. It’s not only doable, it’s something that we’ve done before.

Today, Mr. Hentoff published another piece on the upcoming hate-crimes law, spelling out why he thinks it is unconstitutional and not merely a bad idea. It “violates all these constitutional provisions,” he says: the First Amendment, equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.

We do think the bill, as written, is so vague that is must be voided by the Rule of Lenity. And we do think that, as written, it could well have unintended consequences, and create far more injustice than it’s supposed to prevent.

But unconstitutional? We hate to say this, but we think Mr. Hentoff… we think he… (we can’t believe we’re saying this about one of our intellectual idols)… we think Mr. Hentoff has mischaracterized the rights and protections of the Constitution.

How does it violate the First Amendment? Hentoff acknowledges that the bill explicitly says that it isn’t to be read so as to “prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition” or speech “protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.” But he alludes to 18 U.S.C. § 2(a), which makes you punishable as a principal if you merely “abet, counsel, command or induce” a crime. Speech that induces a hate crime would make you guilty of the hate crime, and so free-speech protections would be violated.

This point was raised in 2007, the last time this bill was considered, when Democratic Rep. Artur Davis said that the law could conceivably be used to prosecute a pastor who had preached that homosexuality is a sin, if it induced someone else to commit violence against a gay person.

There are two big problems here. First of all, the First Amendment protection of free speech is not absolute, and Hentoff of all people should know this. There is always a balancing of the right to free expression against the harm to society that such expression may cause. You don’t have a free-speech right to shout that you have a bomb while standing in line at an airport. You don’t have a free-speech right to offer to sell crack to an undercover. When speech makes out an otherwise criminal act, you’re going to face jail for having said those words. And the First Amendment won’t protect you.

The other problem is that 18 U.S.C. § 2 does not impose criminal liability for unexpected consequences. A pastor who speaks about the Bible to his congregation isn’t going to be liable for subsequent acts of a deviant member of his flock. That’s not the same as a similar authority figure instructing an unstable young man that God wants him to kill gay people. There’s an element of willfulness or recklessness that’s required. And if you willfully said something to induce an act of violence, then it is not speech that the First Amendment protects.

How does this hate crimes bill violate the Fourteenth Amendment? Hentoff says it violates equal protection, not in the way it’s written, but in the way it will be enforced. A white person targeting black people will be punished for the hate crime, but a black person targeting whites won’t be.

That may make intuitive sense, as the law was originally conceived to battle discrimination against minorities. And prosecutors may choose not to apply it if the victim is a white male. That has happened before, as Hentoff points out. A gang in Colorado had an initiation ritual of raping a white woman, and the prosecutor in Boulder opted not to charge a hate crime there.

Nevertheless, the law itself, as written, does not violate equal protection. Yes, prosecutors will (and must) always have the discretion to choose whether to bring a charge or not in a given case. And it is entirely likely that a black guy who punches someone in the nose just because they’re white may not be charged with a hate crime, even though it clearly fits the bill, because of other factors going through the prosecutor’s head — it might not be politically savvy to further penalize someone who (to the paternalistic PC) already had to suffer the discrimination and indignity that made him act out like this. Or it just might not feel right.

But then again, this bill, as amended, is now written very broadly. It casts a much wider net than mere black vs. white. In addition to race, it considers violence committed because of national origin, religion, sex, sexual preference and disability. Everyone is a potential victim of a hate crime now. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to charge members of “victim classes” for hate crimes when they attack members of other victim classes. A disparate effect has yet to occur, and there’s good reason to believe that it never will.

And how does the bill violate double jeopardy? Hentoff is concerned that someone could be charged with an assault in state court, and be found not guilty, only to find himself haled into federal court to face a new prosecution for the same act under the federal hate crime law.

Unfortunately, this is not a double jeopardy problem. It is not unconstitutional for the feds to prosecute someone for a federal crime after he’s already gone through a prosecution for the same act in state court. Double jeopardy does not apply to prosecutions brought by different sovereigns. Each state is a separate sovereign, in addition to the federal government. If you stand in Manhattan and shoot someone on the other side of the Hudson in New Jersey, both states are allowed to prosecute you for it. Some states have extra protections for the individual here — New York won’t prosecute someone after the feds did — but the feds are not so constrained.

And the feds already do this kind of thing routinely with gun laws. If you committed certain crimes with a gun, you can be prosecuted in state court for the crime, and then afterwards get prosecuted in federal court for possessing the gun at the time. These cases are extremely straightforward — either you possessed the gun or you didn’t — and they often go to trial, because of mandatory sentencing, so young federal prosecutors tend to cut their teeth on this stuff. It’s routine, and it does not at all violate double jeopardy.

* * * * *

Hentoff ends his piece today by urging President Obama, before signing the bill into law, to refresh his understanding of the Constitution. He suggests that, as the “former senior lecturer in that document at the University of Chicago, [Obama] should at least take it with him on Air Force One, where there are fewer necessary distractions, and familiarize himself with what the Constitution actually says.”

We love Nat Hentoff. We idolize the man. We agree that hate crime laws have no place in this country. But we think he ought to take his own advice and re-familiarize himself with what the Constitution does and does not protect.

DOJ Tries To Sweep Its Ted Stevens Fiasco Under the Rug

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

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We try not to report here on matters that everyone else in the world is already talking about. That’s why we’ve said nowt on Bernie Madoff and other headline-grabbing stories. For the same reason, we decided yesterday not to mention the DOJ’s request to dismiss the charges in its prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens — everyone else was already reporting it. And we’ve already discussed the DOJ’s misconduct at length here and here.

But we wanted to point out a big point that the media seem to be missing. Most reports see this as a vindication of former Sen. Stevens, and a sign that prosecutorial misconduct will not be tolerated by the DOJ. In fact, however, the DOJ’s action means anything but that.

Stevens was convicted last October after a jury trial in D.C., during which the government withheld important Brady material — the judge said the prosecutors did so intentionally, and an FBI agent later confirmed that it was intentional. In addition, the prosecutors had a witness who, when they found out his testimony could clear Stevens of any guilt, they sent home to Alaska to conceal him from the defense. There were also inappropriate dealings between FBI agents and the government’s star witness, including an apparent sexual relationship.

The prosecutors continued to screw up, failing to turn over documents to the defense as ordered by the judge after all this came out. Understandably, the prosecutors were held in contempt, and taken off the case.

The case had gone from a trumpeted victory for the DOJ, to a squalid embarrassment.

So now, yesterday, the DOJ filed a motion to have all the charges against Sen. Stevens dismissed. They’re holding it out as a heroic act, that they’re doing the just and proper thing, that AG Holder is sending a message to prosecutors at the DOJ that further misconduct will not be tolerated.

We call shenanigans.

This dismissal of the charges is nothing more than an attempt to sweep the whole nefarious affair under the rug. The case goes away, so the problem goes away. There will be no further need for the scrupulous investigation of what went wrong at Justice. There will be no need to hold costly and embarrassing internal reviews. There will be no need for further media scrutiny.

The DOJ should not be permitted to escape whipping, by its own unilateral decision to drop a case. That’s not good enough.

This prosecution of this case was bizarre from the get-go. It was rushed to indictment hastily, mere days before the primaries in an important election (in violation of DOJ rules prohibiting indictments that could affect the outcome of an election, by the way). The prosecutors intentionally withheld evidence that seems to show the Senator didn’t commit the crime he was accused of. They violated court orders. They tried to hide a key witness from the defense. And ironically, these were prosecutors in the Public Integrity unit, of all things.

Now they want to make it all go away. Here’s hoping that Congress, the courts and the media see through this little ploy, and keep on investigating just what the heck is going on in the DOJ these days.

Why Liberal Justices Agree that “Reverse Batson” Error Doesn’t Violate Due Process

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

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In a unanimous decision this morning, the Supreme Court ruled that “there is no freestanding constitutional right to peremptory challenges,” during jury selection in criminal trials. So even if a judge erroneously refuses to let a defendant challenge a juror, so long as that juror couldn’t be challenged for cause, there is no constitutional violation if that juror is seated.

This was an important case, as the issue really had never been decided before. It may perhaps be surprising that even the more liberal Justices agreed with such an important and apparently anti-defendant ruling as this one. But it really makes sense if you think about it. First, a quick summary of the case:

Writing for the unanimous Court in Rivera v. Illinois, Justice Ginsburg put the issue pretty well in her opening paragraph: “If all seated jurors are qualified and unbiased, does the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nonetheless require automatic reversal of the defendant’s conviction?”

Michael Rivera was on trial for first-degree murder. During jury selection, each side was allowed to make peremptory challenges to potential jurors, who otherwise could not have been excluded for cause. Rivera’s lawyer, having already exercised two peremptories against women, now made a third challenge against a female.

The trial judge, said no way, finding sua sponte that the defense was excluding jurors on the basis of sex in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The juror was seated, and was then selected as the foreperson of the jury. The jury convicted Rivera, and sentenced him to 85 years in prison.

Rivera appealed, saying that the peremptory challenge should have been allowed, and that the error required reversal. The state supreme court decided that any error in seating the juror would have been harmless.

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rivera first argued that the erroneous denial of a peremptory challenge means the jury contains someone who shouldn’t have been there, so the jury is illegally constituted, and therefore its verdict is per se invalid. The review shouldn’t be for harmless error, because nobody knows what a proper jury would have thought, and so reversal must be required.

The Court didn’t buy those arguments. Peremptory challenges aren’t guaranteed by the Constitution, but instead are permitted by individual state laws, and are merely “a creature of statute.” States can and do prohibit them altogether. So even a mistake as alleged here wouldn’t rise to the level of a constitutional violation.

The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment doesn’t elevate the state law to a federal concern, either, because that Clause only protects fundamental fairness in criminal trials. It does not protect the mere “meticulous observance of state procedural prescriptions.” An error of state law isn’t automatically a Due Process violation. And to hold now that a one-time, good-faith misapplication of Batson violates Due Process would probably create the wrong incentive, and make judges less likely to apply Batson in future cases.

So, focusing on fundamental fairness, Ginsburg concluded that the judge’s refusal to reject the juror didn’t have any effect. Rivera’s right to a fair trial before an impartial jury wasn’t affected, because everyone agreed that none of the jurors could have been removed for cause, and none were biased. So it doesn’t matter whether a different panel might have decided differently. All that matters is that the jury did not violate the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

The Court also rejected “the notion that a juror is constitutionally disqualified” just because she was aware that the defendant had challenged her. Rivera got a fair trial, with an impartial jury, so he got “precisely what due process required.”

The Court’s decision was not only unanimous, but strongly stated. This may have come as a surprise to Court-watchers who might expect some of the more liberal Justices to argue in favor of more rights for criminal defendants.

However, it could not have been a surprise to any who witnessed the oral arguments. Those very Justices on whom Rivera probably relied were his harshest critics. Ginsburg expressed disdain, calling the argument that a wrongly-seated jury is per se invalid “quite a stretch.” Souter pointed out that the Illinois Supreme Court gets to interpret its state law, not the U.S. Supreme Court, and Illinois had held that there wasn’t a violation in the first place. Breyer observed that Rivera’s arguments would create a huge “slippery slope” of making a constitutional issue out of every potential jury defect. Kennedy accused Rivera of making a sweeping proposition requiring massive supervision and intrusion of state courts by federal courts. Ginsburg and Souter also aggressively challenged Rivera’s interpretation of the facts and the decision below. Stevens even suggested that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction to review the case in the first place.

By the end of the argument, it was clear that Rivera was going to lose this one badly. Kennedy’s last question, to the U.S. Government’s lawyer, was essentially along the lines of “you’re going to win, but there are lots of alternative ways we could rule in your favor, so which one do you think is the most straightforward?”

Apart from the clues at oral argument, this ruling shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone familiar with the ever-evolving law of peremptory challenges. Swain said systematically excluding members of the defendant’s race from the jury pool violates the defendant’s rights. Batson and its progeny expanded the rule to say that prosecutors who exercise peremptories to discriminate against any race or sex (not just the defendant’s) violate, not the defendant’s rights, but the rights of the public to serve on juries (though the penalty benefits not the public but the defendant). J.E.B. v. T.B. extended that rule to say defendants can’t violate the public’s rights any more than prosecutors can (the “reverse Batson” rule).

These cases show that the balance has shifted — away from protecting individual defendants from discrimination that keeps people like them out of the jury box, and towards protecting a generalized state interest in protecting society from the kinds of discrimination we don’t like.

So the Court wasn’t about to stand in the way of the arrow of history, by imposing a rule that would be a disincentive to courts, discouraging them from stopping discrimination.

Looked at that way, it’s hardly surprising that the more liberal Justices were the ones most antagonistic to the defendant in this case. Ruling in Rivera’s favor would have meant undoing liberal protections against general discrimination in society. There was no concrete reason to think Rivera’s jury was actually unfair, so there was no strong sentiment in his favor. The liberal interest in societal justice simply outweighed any concerns for individual fairness here.

Supreme Court: If Prosecution Breaches Plea Deal, OBJECT!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

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Voting 7-2, the Supreme Court today ruled that a defendant cannot appeal when the prosecution reneged on a plea bargain, unless the issue was preserved before the trial court.

In his majority opinion for Puckett v. U.S., Justice Scalia cleared up a split among the circuits. There had been differing opinions on whether this situation was one of the exceptions to the general rule requiring that issues be preserved below. He sort of signaled his take on the issue with his first sentence: “The question presented by this case is whether a forfeited claim that the Government has violated the terms of a plea agreement is subject to the plain-error standard of review set forth in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

The facts of the case are going to sound familiar to anyone who’s been doing criminal law for very long. The defendant was indicted for armed robbery, and negotiated a plea deal. As part of the deal, the prosecutors promised to tell the court that he “has demonstrated acceptance of responsibility and thereby qualifies for a three-level reduction…” But then, after the plea but before sentencing, the defendant got in trouble again, this time for a scheme to defraud the Postal Service. The prosecutors changed their mind, in light of this new information, and told the sentencing court that the defendant should *not* get credit for accepting responsibility.

The defense attorney called foul, and reminded the court of the terms of the plea agreement. The judge turned to the prosecutor, who dismissed it as having been written a long time ago, and the new crime changed the situation. The judge decided that he couldn’t grant a reduction, and wouldn’t even if he could, given the new crime. He did impose a sentence at the low end of the range, however.

“Importantly,” to Scalia, “at no time during the exchange did Puckett’s counsel object that the Government was violating its obligations under the plea agreement by backing away from its request for the reduction. He never cited the relevant provision of the plea agreement. And he did not move to withdraw Puckett’s plea on grounds that the Government had broken its sentencing promises.”

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that error had occurred, and it was obvious, but it did not cause prejudice, so it was not “plain error.” Basically, the defendant couldn’t demonstrate that his ultimate sentence would have been any different, whether the prosecution had recommended the reduction or not, given the judge’s disinclination to grant it in the first place.

But there was a conflict among the circuits as to whether the plain-error test applies to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements. So the Supreme Court granted cert.

In finding that Rule 52(b) does apply to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements, Scalia started with the principle that plain-error review is rightly the norm for unpreserved errors, because “anyone familiar with the work of courts understands that errors are a constant in the trial process, and that a reflexive inclination by appellate courts to reverse because of unpreserved error would be fatal.” Exceptions to the normal rule do exist, of course. But should this situation be one of them?

Everyone took it as given that the government had broken its agreement. The issue is whether, in the absence of an objection below, anything could be done about it on appeal here.

The defendant first argued conceptually that the government’s breach of the plea agreement made that agreement void, and so voided the guilty plea. Scalia pointed out that breaching a contract does not make the whole contract void and invalid from the first; the contract remains enforceable.

The defendant next argued that there was precedent in *Santobello*, where a broken plea promise was grounds for reversal in the interests of justice, even though the breach did not affect the judge’s decision and thus the error was harmless. Scalia countered that whether or not an error is harmless is not the issue here, which is whether the error can be subjected to plain-error review. In *Santobello*, moreover, the issue clearly had been preserved below.

The defendant then argued that applying Rule 52(b) makes no sense, because objecting to a plea breach is futile; the prosecution’s wrongful action cannot be undone. The judge will have heard the improper recommendation, and can’t unhear it. Scalia stated that requiring an objection prevents defendants from “seeking a second bite at the apple” after waiting to see if they like the outcome or not. Also, some breaches are curable. And those that aren’t can be remedied by the trial court, such as by withdrawal of the plea, or by resentencing before a different judge.

The biggest point the defendant raised was that plea breaches fall within “a special category of forfeited errors that can be corrected regardless of their effect on the outcome,” so that even if there was no prejudicial effect, there still ought to be a reversal.

Scalia responded by categorizing the exceptions that do exist: errors that “necessarily render a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence,” or that “defy analysis by harmless-error standards by affecting the entire adjudicatory framework,” or which involve “difficulty of assessing the effect of the error.”

None of those considerations applied here, so Scalia decided that this situation just didn’t fit as an exception to the general rule.

Justice Souter, joined by Justice Stevens, dissented. Although the defendant wasn’t terribly sympathetic, and although they agreed that the plain-error test is the right one to apply here, the dissenters felt that the Court was looking at the wrong effects.

The majority (and apparently the parties, too) looked at the effect of the error as merely being the length of the sentence, which probably wasn’t affected here. Souter, in contrast, saw the effect as being “conviction in the absence of trial,” or in the absence of “compliance with the terms of the plea agreement dispensing with the Government’s obligation to prove its case.”

The criminal conviction itself, not the length of sentence, is the effect on substantial rights according to Souter. Due Process and fundamental fairness require, “before the stigma of conviction can be imposed,” either a trial or a plea agreement honored by the Government. “It is hard to imagine anything less fair,” he stated, “than branding someone a criminal… because he entered a plea of guilty induced by an agreement the Government refuses to honor.” Sentencing after the prosecution breached a plea agreement would always, by definition, be plain error.

Justice Souter’s approach is, of course, attractive to those who value the fairness and integrity of jurisprudence. However, it is hard even for this defense attorney to agree that all such sentences are necessarily plain error, especially when an adequate remedy (getting to take one’s plea back) is available if the defense attorney is paying attention.