Posts Tagged ‘Eighth Amendment’

Beatings & Batson

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

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The Supreme Court is back in session, well rested from a three-week vacation. (We don’t remember the last time we took three weeks off. Wonder what that must be like.) They opened the day this morning with two interesting per curiam decisions.

The first, Wilkins v. Gaddy, is about what counts as “excessive force” against a prisoner. There was some confusion among the circuits here.

This was a case coming out of North Carolina. A prisoner named Wilkins asked a prison guard for a grievance form. The guard, Gaddy, lost his temper. Wilkins claims that Gaddy threw him to the ground and beat him up, until another officer came and pulled him off. At the end of the day, though, his only injury was a bruised heel and some lingering pain.

The Fourth Circuit said that didn’t count as “excessive force,” because there wasn’t much injury. The main case on point was Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992), which the Fourth Circuit had been interpreting to mean that the prisoner’s injuries had to be more than de minimis. And a bruise on your heel is about as de minimis as it gets.

The Supreme Court reversed, saying that’s not at all what Hudson was saying. Calling the Fourth’s reading of that case “strained,” the Supremes clarified the rule in no uncertain terms: the focus is not on what happened to the prisoner, but on what the corrections officer did.

The issue is not how significant the injuries were, but whether the correction officer’s force was “nontrivial,” and “was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm,” rather than as part of “a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.”

So, just because a prisoner got hurt, that doesn’t mean he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. People can get hurt for other reasons; that makes sense. What matters is whether he was assaulted, subjected to unjustifiable ill treatment. The extent of injury doesn’t have anything to do with whether his rights were violated in the first place — they merely go to “the damages he may recover.”

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The second case decided today, Thaler v. Haynes, is a Batson case out of Texas.

This was a death penalty case, so the stakes were high. There’d be some pressure on everyone involved to do it right. But the criminal law being what it is, things went weird from the get-go.

When the attorneys questioned potential jurors during (more…)

Supreme Court Smackdown: Sixth Circuit Gets Lectured on Double Jeopardy

Monday, June 1st, 2009

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In a unanimous decision today, the Supreme Court held that the Double Jeopardy Clause doesn’t prevent Ohio from re-litigating a capital defendant’s mental retardation, after the state’s highest court had opined that he had “mild to borderline” mental retardation.

The case is unique, in that the defendant was sentenced to death before the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, which outlawed execution of mentally retarded offenders. So the mental capacity of the defendant was taken into consideration at sentencing, but was held to be outweighed by the horrific facts of the crime (the aggravated murder, kidnapping and attempted rape of a ten-year-old boy). Evidence of borderline mental retardation was presented, but no factual finding was reached as to his capacity. On appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the conviction, and made a passing observation that the defendant had mild to borderline mental retardation, but agreed that its mitigating value was outweighed by the crime.

But then the Supreme Court rendered its Eighth Amendment decision in Atkins, so the trial court ordered a new hearing to make the factual finding of the defendant’s mental capacity, for the purpose of determining whether his death sentence should be commuted to a life sentence.

The defendant, Michael Bies, challenged that on habeas, and the federal District Court said the new hearing shouldn’t be held, and the defendant’s death sentence should be vacated, because the Ohio high court’s observation amounted to a finding of fact that Bies was retarded.

The state appealed that order, but the Sixth Circuit upheld it, holding that the Ohio high court had made a definitive determination of fact, and that determination entitled Bies to a life sentence. Any new hearing would violate Double Jeopardy, by putting Bies at risk of a death sentence again.

Writing for the unanimous Supreme Court today, in Bobby v. Bies, Justice Ginsburg stated that the Sixth Circuit didn’t understand what Double Jeopardy means. The Circuit “fundamentally misperceived the application of the Double Jeopardy Clause and its issue preclusion (collateral estoppel) component.”

Bies was not “twice put in jeopardy,” wrote Ginsburg. Ohio took no action to seek further prosecution or punishment. The new efforts were entirely of the defendant’s doing — rather than serial prosecutions, we have “serial efforts by the defendant to vacate his capital sentence.”

Also, the issues to be litigated aren’t identical. The first time around, the issue was whether his mental capacity mitigated the criminal offense. This time around, the issue is whether he is mentally retarded for the purposes of Atkins, which has not yet been decided.

Also, the Sixth Circuit failed to understand that “issue preclusion” is not a claim that the loser gets to bring. It’s only a claim that winners get to bring, so they don’t have to keep litigating determinations that were necessary to the outcome of a prior proceeding. Here, the Ohio high court did recognize Bies’ mental capacity as a mitigating factor, but that observation was not essential to the death sentence he got — it was the opposite, something that “cut against” it. “Issue preclusion, in short,” wrote Ginsburg, “does not transform final judgment losers, in civil or criminal proceedings, into partially prevailing parties.”

So the upshot is that “the federal courts’ intervention in this case derailed a state trial court proceeding designed to determine whether Bies has a successful Atkins claim.” And the state hearing is exactly what the Supreme Court intended to happen when it wrote Atkins.

* * * * *

Interestingly, in the briefs and arguments, the defense made a point of showing that Ohio wasn’t making much of an argument on AEDPA grounds (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996). The Supreme Court dismissed the entire issue in a footnote:

This case, we note is governed by the [AEDPA]. Bies plainly fails to qualify for relief under that Act: The Ohio courts’ decisions were not “contrary to, or . . . an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), and were not “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” §2254(d)(2).

* * * * *

Although it may seem at first glance that the defendant got a raw deal here — he has to re-litigate an issue he already thought he’d prevailed on — the Court’s reasoning is sound. Double Jeopardy happens when the same sovereign tries to get a second chance to punish you for the same offense.

Here, the state wasn’t trying to do that at all. All Ohio was trying to do was determine whether new caselaw permitted it to let the original punishment stand, or whether the new law required it to reduce the original punishment.

You can see how easy it is to make the Sixth Circuit’s error, of course. It appeared as though the Ohio high court had made a factual determination that, by operation of the new caselaw, automatically required commutation of the death sentence here. So ordering the new hearing looks like the state trying to get a second shot at it. But really, as the Court pointed out, the issues are not the same. There never was any finding of fact that the defendant actually was mentally retarded for Eighth Amendment purposes, and that was precisely what needed to happen.

* * * * *

And Ginsburg is the last person on the Supreme Court to rule otherwise, if there was any chance that the defendant ought to have prevailed.

We recall a case we worked on back in 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips. We worked through our holiday with him, well into the night, trying to get the Supreme Court to commute the death sentence of a mentally retarded convict. But this was pre-Atkins, and the Court rejected our application. Only Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg would have granted it. The case was Correll v. Jabe, No. 95-7283, and Mr. Correll became the last mentally retarded person to be executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Justice was not done then, and the case has since become the stuff of plays and campaigns, but had Ginsburg had her way then, we might now be discussing the Correll rule instead of the Atkins rule. So it would be dishonest to claim that she is callous to this defendant’s situation.

All in all, this is a good opinion. The clarification of what Double Jeopardy and issue preclusion mean was absolutely necessary. And while Mr. Bies’ situation cannot worsen, it actually stands a good chance of improving after his upcoming hearing.

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.

The Chutzpah Defense: Should Defendants be Able to Appeal Their Way to an 8th Amendment Violation?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

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Few would deny that 32 years is a long time to spend in jail. It’s a long time to spend on death row, as well. But is delaying the execution — particularly when the delay is caused by the convict’s own appeals — cruel and unusual punishment violating the 8th Amendment?

This issue has sparked a fierce debate among the justices of the Supreme Court, three of whom put their positions in writing this week. The Court itself punted the issue, which was brought by William Lee Thompson, declining to hear his claim that 32 years on death row was cruel and unusual. But Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas took their disagreement out of the conference room and put it on paper.

Justice Stevens has been trying to get the Court to take on this issue since 1995, when he wrote a memorandum statement arguing that, although novel at the time, the proposition was “not without foundation.” Lackey v. Texas, 514 U.S. 1045 (1995). The state’s interest in retribution, he then mused, might be satisfied by the uncertainties a prisoner must suffer during a lengthy delay of execution (though why he felt that retribution was a proper purpose of punishment in a modern civilized society is a whole nother topic). Any deterrent purpose would be negligible after such a delay, he argued, and any penalty with little marginal return would essentially be gratuitous, and therefore cruel and unusual. Stevens also pointed out that other countries’ courts had found similar arguments to be persuasive.

In his statement this week, Stevens pointed out that the average execution happens nearly 13 years after sentencing, adding that “to my mind, this figure underscores the fundamental inhumanity and unworkability of the death penalty as it is administered in the United States.”

However, he went on to say that the delays are mostly the result of judicial process. “Judicial process takes time, but the error rate in capital cases illustrates its necessity. We are duty bound to [ensure] that every safeguard is observed when a defendant’s life is at stake.” He concluded that “our experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable, and that executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel.”

We’re no fans of the death penalty, but Stevens’ argument is a bit too much of a non sequitur, even for us. His argument is essentially: A) Delay is necessary to ensure justice in capital cases, and B) Delay sucks, if you’re the one on death row, so therefore C) Delay is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Which is the opposite of A. It doesn’t follow.

Stevens doesn’t need it to follow, however, because his ulterior motive is to find the death penalty itself unconstitutional. He says as much in his conclusion (quoting a previous opinion of his, which itself echoed his argument in the 1995 statement).

Justice Breyer has been pushing this issue almost as long as Stevens has, joining the cause in 1999 when he opposed denial of cert. in two Florida cases, Foster v. Florida, 537 U.S. 990 and Knight v. Florida, 528 U.S. 990. His statement in this week’s case can be found here.

Like Stevens, Breyer clearly had an ulterior motive for wanting to grant cert. He also agrees that delay is necessary to ensure justice in capital cases, and the defendant caused most of the delay in his case with apparently meritless appeals.

However, critically important to Breyer is the fact that a portion of the delay was spent on a meritorious appeal. The trial judge didn’t allow some evidence at the sentencing hearing, but was compelled to allow it at a new hearing. The defendant got the same sentence of death.

Breyer’s argument is that the delay involved in the meritorious appeal was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, because the appeal would not have happened but for the sentencing judge’s error, which is state action. The delay involved in the meritless appeals is a necessary safeguard of the criminal justice system, and is just fine.

Seriously, that’s his argument. Read it yourself. What Breyer really wanted was to undo the death sentence itself, which he felt wasn’t really deserved here.

So what about Justice Thomas? He took the other side, arguing the 32 years were spent in appellate litigation brought by the petitioner. He caused the very delay of which he now complains. He used a quote from Mike Luttig to make the point: “It makes a mockery of our system of justice . . . for a convicted murderer, who, through his own interminable efforts of delay . . . has secured the almost-indefinite postponement of his sentence, to then claim that the almost-indefinite postponement renders his sentence unconstitutional.”

Thomas felt that ulterior motives should not undercut the decisions of three separate juries, each of which held that the petitioner should be executed for kidnapping and horribly torturing a woman to death. The Constitution permitted the death penalty, and it was “the considered judgment of the people of Florida” that it was warranted here.

So all three justices seem to tacitly admit that the Supreme Court will take on a case, even if the arguments presented aren’t the right arguments, if it feels there is some other injustice that needs to be cured. Stevens and Breyer wanted to take on this case, because they felt the death penalty shouldn’t have been imposed — Stevens because he thinks it should never be imposed, and Breyer because he thinks the petitioner wasn’t as guilty as his co-defendant, who didn’t get the death penalty. Thomas didn’t see any injustice, so didn’t need to overlook the defendant’s chutzpah, though his dwelling on the merits of the sentence indicate that he might have done so in another case.

As of now, there is still no “Chutzpah Defense.” But don’t be surprised if some enterprising defense attorneys don’t craft some new versions of that argument, inspired by these three opinions.

Prisons Crowded? Don’t Build More, Says Court. Just Release the Inmates.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

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A panel of three federal judges yesterday essentially ordered the State of California to reduce its prison population by as much as 57,000 people, because crowding is causing violations of prisoner rights. This doesn’t mean that wardens will be releasing thousands of hardened criminals back onto the streets, but it does raise questions of how to do it. In its ruling, the court accepted certain possible solutions, but rejected the one obvious solution of building more prison space.

The panel was made up of U.S. District Court judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton, as well as Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit. These judges are known for their left-leaning policies, so it’s hardly surprising, perhaps, that they accepted and rejected the solutions that they did. Increasing prisons is not widely regarded as a liberal position.

Although the panel only issued a “tentative ruling” in Coleman v. Schwarzenegger (link from the L.A. Times), this is probably going to be the final ruling, which is why they were confident enough to issue it formally. Unless it’s overturned on appeal, California is going to have to think up and enact some creative methods of carrying out the order, so the judges wanted to give the state time “to allow them to plan accordingly.”

The case, actually two cases, were brought by prisoners who alleged that crowding — not overcrowding, just crowding — was causing violations of their constitutional rights. These aren’t new cases — one has been in the remedy stage since 1995, and the other since 2002.

The dispute now was not over whether crowding exists, or whether care is unconstitutionally inadequate. Gov. Schwarzenegger issued a state of emergency in 2006, still in effect today, because overcrowding was putting prisoners’ and guards’ health and safety at risk. So the fact of crowding couldn’t be in dispute. Also not in dispute is a previous court ruling that the prisons were not providing constitutionally adequate medical and psychological care.

The issue here was whether the crowding was the main reason for the failure to provide adequate medical and psychological care. And if so, then what to do about it.

The court found that there aren’t enough clinical facilities, resources or personnel to accommodate all the inmates who needed them. The risk of the spread of infectious disease is also enhanced by bunking prisoners in gyms and other spaces not intended to be used for housing. Lots of experts testified that crowding was the primary cause of the problems.

That being decided, California wanted a chance to fix the problem without decreasing the prison population. California showed that, under monitoring by a receiver and special master during the past 11 years, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had already made significant improvements in conditions. So they asked for more time to fix these particular problems.

The court said no. They’ve had 11 years, and haven’t fixed the problem yet, so the court didn’t trust the monitors to fix it now. And anyway, “many of their achievements have succumbed to the inexorably rising tide of population.” Furthermore, California has no money to spare for new facilities, resources and personnel. Remedies for these cases have been tried since 1995, for 14 years now, and any future efforts of the receiver and special master could take many more years to have effect. The court felt that any further continuation of the already lengthy deprivation of constitutional rights would be wrong.

The court couldn’t think of any other relief that would work, other than reducing the prison population. Because scores of remedial orders had so far failed, “we are at a loss to imagine what other relief short of a prisoner release order a court could grant.”

So back to the question of how to do it. The court suggested various methods, such as “parole reform,” which we guess would mean changing parole rules, so that violators don’t necessarily go back to prison. Or “good time credits,” which could include both granting greater time off for good behavior, and letting more bad behavior count as good behavior. Or “evidence-based programming intended to reduce recidivism,” which simply means implementing services that are scientifically proven to actually reduce subsequent criminal behavior, as opposed to trying things that just sound good.

The court felt that building more prison space, the one obvious solution, was not something the court could order California to do, because it “may not be within the court’s general powers under the PLRA.” The PLRA, 18 U.S.C. §3626(g)(4) defines a “prisoner release order” as anything that has the effect of reducing or limiting the prison population. So the examples above would work. But one that merely reduces crowding — the problem to be solved here — doesn’t count, because it doesn’t reduce the number of prisoners.

We think that’s probably wrong. Building more prison space would solve the problem complained of. It may not be within the scope of the PLRA, but that’s not the sole authority that the court has. It has equitable power to order the state to do whatever works to stop the constitutional violations.

The court went on to say that California’s inmate population was about 200% of intended capacity, but reducing that population to about 120% to 145% would be sufficient. The court felt that this was the proper balance between concerns of public safety and prisoner rights.

The state immediately announced that it will appeal, of course. This will be one to watch, as pretty much every state is operating prisons beyond their design capacity, and fixes need to start happening soon. What happens here will influence how other states deal with the problem.

Justices Miss the Point of the Exclusionary Rule

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

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The Bill of Rights, notably Amendments 4-6, protects accused individuals from improper action by the police. The typical remedy for police violation of these rights is suppression of the evidence that would not have been gathered but for the violation. This Exclusionary Rule protects the justice system, by ensuring that the maximum lawfully-gathered evidence is available, while ensuring that defendants aren’t prosecuted with unlawfully-gathered evidence. Police officers and departments are not punished for violations, because that would create an incentive to avoid borderline situations where evidence could have been obtained lawfully. Rather than do that, the Exclusionary Rule lets officers go right up to the line of what they’re allowed to do, and only takes away what they shouldn’t have been allowed to get.

The Exclusionary Rule is not an individual right, but is rather a remedy that has been crafted over generations of thoughtful jurisprudence. It simultaneously maximizes protection of the individual’s rights, and society’s interest in law enforcement. It balances two powerful and competing interests, and it does the job elegantly. As such, it is a beautiful rule, but one that is nevertheless criticized — both by law-and-order types and by defendant-rights types — when its role is misunderstood. Unfortunately, it is misunderstood all the time.

So it was no surprise to see plenty of misunderstanding of the Exclusionary Rule in yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Herring v. United States (No. 07-513). Split 5-4 (and with delightful sniping in the footnotes), the justices on either side of the ruling tried to clarify what the Exclusionary Rule means, but only demonstrated that they’re missing the point. All of them. In their attempt to clarify the rule, all they did was muddy the waters.

That’s right, we just said that we understand the Exclusionary Rule better than the Supreme Court. Modesty is not our strong suit.

The Herring case arose in Coffee County, Alabama. Bennie Dean Herring was someone who’d had his share of run-ins with law enforcement over the years. His truck was impounded, and he went to the Sheriff’s Department to get something out of it. When one of the Sheriff’s investigators found out, he had the Coffee County warrant clerk check to see if Herring had any outstanding warrants. There weren’t any in Coffee County. Then they called neighboring Dale County to check. The Dale County computers showed an active arrest warrant for failing to show up in court on a felony charge. Based on that information, the Coffee County officer pulled Herring over as he left the impound lot, arrested him, and recovered methamphetamines and an illegal gun.

In the meantime, the Dale County warrant clerk went to get a copy of the warrant, to send to the Coffee County officer. But there wasn’t one in the file. So the clerk checked with the court, and found out that the warrant had been recalled. For whatever reason, the information never got from the Dale County court to the Dale County warrant database. The warrant clerk called the Coffee County warrant clerk immediately, and the warrant clerk immediately called the officer, but the arrest and search had already taken place.

At trial, Herring moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the arrest was illegal, as the warrant it was based on no longer existed. The trial court said the evidence was admissible, because the officer did nothing wrong, and acted in good faith on information that the warrant was still outstanding.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the Coffee County officer did nothing wrong. Any error was independent of that officer. The error was the result of negligence on someone else’s part, and was moreover a negligent inaction rather than some government action. The Circuit therefore held that the negligence was so attenuated from the officer’s actions that any benefit to be gained by suppression, and so the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule of U.S. v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that, even if the search or arrest was unreasonable, the Exclusionary Rule doesn’t always apply. It’s a last resort only. He reiterated that exclusion is not a right of the individual, but is instead a deterrent. The benefits of a deterrent must be weighed against its costs.

Thus, when police have acted in “objectively reasonable” reliance on a warrant that was later held to be invalid, or on a statute that was later declared unconstitutional, or on a court (not police) database that mistakenly stated that an arrest warrant was outstanding, the Supreme Court has held that the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule. The Court had held that evidence should be suppressed only when the officer knew or should have known that the search was unconstitutional. Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340 (1987).

“Objectively reasonable” (or “good faith”) means “a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal, in light of all the circumstances.” It’s not a subjective test of what the officer actually intended, but rather a test of what he should have known. Here, there was no reason to believe that the Coffee County officer wasn’t being objectively reasonable in relying on the information from Dale County’s warrant clerk. So the officer did nothing requiring suppression.

The underlying error didn’t require suppression, either. Here, the clerical error wasn’t the result of a recklessly-maintained system. Nor was it the result of the police planting false information for the purpose of justifying false arrests later on. The kind of clerical error here is not something that the Exclusionary Rule could affect or deter meaningfully.

Roberts concluded by saying “we conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than a systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, any marginal deterrence does not ‘pay its way.’ In such a case, the criminal should not ‘go free because the constable has blundered.’”

In this opinion, Roberts’ reasoning was certainly sound. However, he amplified the erroneous viewpoint that the proper policy purpose of the Exclusionary Rule is to deter future misconduct. The policy is categorically not to deter. Deterrence is a purpose of punishment, and this is not a rule of punishment. Deterrence gives the police an incentive not to approach the line of impermissibility. That is precisely what the Rule is designed to avoid.

The Exclusionary Rule is not a rule of deterrence or of punishment, but is instead a rule of balancing — balancing individual rights with society’s interests in law enforcement. Roberts does get the concept, as in his discussions of balancing marginal utility against cost. But his repetition of the “deterrence” fallacy just confuses an otherwise clear argument.

Justice Ginsberg similarly the Exclusionary Rule in her dissent (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer). Like Roberts, Ginsberg says the purpose is deterrence. But she goes even further to say that the Rule should be used to deter practically all police error.

This is a much more expansive purpose for the Exclusionary Rule (or as Ginsberg puts it, “a more majestic conception”). She goes so far as to say that any arrest based on carelessly-maintained database information would be unlawful, and would require suppression.

If the Rule were to be used as a deterrent, Ginsberg does make an argument that its marginal utility even in cases of carelessness, like this one, is sufficient to justify its use. Suppressing evidence could very well lead to reforms in the data management, to ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again. But exclusion is not the only means to that end, and is not even a very suitable means, as there is no actual pressure on the record-keepers to change their ways. The more effective means would be pressure from police leadership and political superiors to fix the process. Also, exclusion of evidence in County A is hardly likely to influence behavior in County B.

Justice Breyer issued his own dissent, joined by Justice Souter. In it, he makes the same error of ascribing deterrent purposes to the Exclusionary Rule, rather than the purpose of balancing interests. And as a result, he falls into the same trap of reasoning as Ginsberg.

Breyer wants a bright-line rule. Because of his focus on deterrence, he would draw the line between the police and the courts — if the error was made by court personnel, then they are not going to be deterred by suppression, so the Exclusionary Rule should not apply. But if the error was made by any police personnel, then the Rule should apply. Breyer fails to explain, however, how police database clerics are in any way deterred from negligent error by the suppression of evidence seized as a result of such error. He similarly fails to explain how court clerks are somehow different, so that they could not have been so deterred by suppression.

Ginsberg and Breyer’s arguments fall apart because they’re looking at suppression as a punishment, a deterrent, rather than as the result of a balancing of competing interests. Roberts gets it, but he too makes the same mistake to some degree. This decision seems to have muddied the waters, instead of clarifying the rule.

Oh well, better luck next time guys!

Will SCOTUS Reopen Question of Discriminatory Application of the Death Penalty?

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

racial disparity

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, has suggested to the Washington Post that the Supreme Court may be getting ready to review “whether the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory discriminatory way, an issue the Court has not taken up for two decades.”

Dieter drew this conclusion from the Supreme Court’s denial of cert. yesterday in the capital punishment case Walker v. Georgia. As we pointed out recently, the Supreme Court has taken to using denials of cert. for raising questions on capital punishment.

The issue here is how thorough a court’s proportionality review must be, to ensure that a death sentence is not based on arbitrariness or discrimination. Justices Stevens and Thomas concurred with the denial of cert., but gave strongly opposed written opinions.

Stevens, the more liberal of the two, stated that Walker’s case was “troubling,” because it involved a black killer and a white victim. Numerous studies over the years have shown that black defendants are much more likely than whites to be charged with capital crimes, regardless of the race of the victim, but that capital crimes are also much more likely to be charged when the victim is white, regardless of the race of the killer.

Stevens felt that the Georgia Supreme Court wholly ignored its job, and only performed a perfunctory review of proportionality. It merely cited 21 similar death sentences and said that was good enough. The court didn’t describe or compare the facts of those cases, which differed in heinousness.

Thomas, on the other hand, said that Stevens was “simply wrong.” “There is nothing constitutionally defective about the Georgia Supreme Court’s determination. Proportionality review is not constitutionally required in any form.” Georgia has chosen to do some kind of proportionality review, and that’s fine, but the Supreme Court has never required that it do so. If Georgia wants to administer its own additional rule in its own way, that’s up to Georgia.

Thomas, the more conservative of the two, pointed out that the Court already looked at all of the arguments Stevens raised, and rejected them in McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987).

The fact that these arguments are being raised in written cert. opinions, however, is certainly giving some folks reason to believe that the Court may be interested in looking at them again, should the right case come its way.

SCOTUS Clarifies Cruel & Unusual Execution, Without Saying a Word

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Lethal injection chamber

Richard Cooey was executed by lethal injection this morning, after the Supreme Court denied without comment his final appeal.

He had claimed that lethal injection could cause a painful death. The Court declined to address the issue, and simply denied a stay of execution.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected without comment Cooey’s original request for a stay. Cooey had argued that his obesity would make it difficult for prison officials to find a vein, thus rendering his execution cruel and unusual.

The Court decided not to use this case to clarify the law on what medical standards satisfy Eighth Amendment concerns. The Court similarly left the issue alone four years ago in a written opinion.

That earlier case, Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637 (2004), was a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action on the grounds that cutting into an inmate’s flesh to locate a vein was cruel and unusual. Contrary to what the news media have reported, the Court did not rule one way or the other on that assertion. Instead, it ruled that the District Court needed to hold a hearing on whether such a procedure was necessary; and if so, then it would have to address the question of whether the procedure was a constitutional method. The Court specifically declined to address the constitutionality of the specific procedure, because it did not have to reach that issue.

Because the Court has continued to leave open the question of what standard should apply to method-of-execution claims, the door is open to further case-by-case review. Until a clear rule is determined by the Court, one might expect a series of similar appeals, as inmates with varying individual circumstances seek to challenge methods of execution.

Judging from the holding in Nelson, the rejection of Cooey’s claims, and a 1994 lower court case staying the hanging of a severely obese man, it appears likely that the significant factor in any future decision will be whether any wounding of the body is necessary for the execution to be carried out. Hanging an extraordinarily fat person could result in unnecessary decapitation, and so is improper. Puncturing the body to inject lethal chemicals with painkillers is necessary and limited, and is proper. Making an incision to locate a vein may or may not be necessary, and a hearing would be required to determine if it is constitutional.

So we might expect any future written decision on the constitutionality of particular execution methods to focus — at least in part — on the whether any wounding of the body is necessary and limited.