Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

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The State appealed a trial court's orders granting respondent Brandon Brown’s (defendant) petition for writ of habeas corpus, vacating his sentence, and resentencing him to 16 years eight months in prison, which was eight years shorter than his original sentence. The trial court granted his writ petition because his strike for carjacking as a juvenile did not qualify as a strike under Welfare and Institutions Code section 707(b) and Penal Code section 667(d)(3). The trial court also concluded that defendant’s trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) by not objecting to the strike during sentencing. The State contended on appeal that the trial court erred in granting defendant’s writ petition because: (1) defendant’s juvenile carjacking adjudication qualified as a strike under the 2006 law; (2) the trial court erred in applying California v. Gallardo, 4 Cal.5th 120 (2017), retroactively; (3) the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction by vacating the carjacking strike entered in Los Angeles (case No. VA 076709) and Orange County (case No. 03NF1824) cases; (4) defendant’s trial counsel was not ineffective, because the record of conviction established defendant’s carjacking adjudication qualified as a strike; and (5) defendant’s delay in filing his writ petition prejudiced the People’s ability to oppose it. The Court of Appeal determined the trial court did not err in applying Gallardo retroactively and granting defendant’s writ petition on the ground defendant’s juvenile carjacking adjudication did not qualify as a strike. Therefore, the Court concluded it did not need to address the State's additional IAC challenge. Furthermore, the Court rejected the State’s other objections and affirmed the writ petition order and judgment. View "In re Brown" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the circuit court sentencing Petitioner to two terms of one to five years of imprisonment in connection with his conviction of two counts of delivery of a controlled substance, holding that the circuit court did not err in not suppressing evidence of an audio/video recording of one of the two drug transactions. On appeal, Petitioner argued that the circuit court erred in refusing to suppress evidence related to one of the drug transactions on the grounds that the evidence was obtained as a result of a recorded transaction within his home without an electronic intercept order issued prior to the transaction. Petitioner argued that this conduct violated State v. Mullens, 650 S.E.2d 169 (W. Va. 2007), and was not in compliance with the Electronic Interception of Conduct or Oral Communications in the Home Act. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that exigent circumstances prevented law enforcement officers from obtaining an order authorizing the use of an audio/video recorder in Petitioner's home. View "State v. Howells" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the circuit court resentencing Petitioner to not less than ten nor more than twenty-five years in prison, holding that the sentence did not shock the conscience and was not disproportionate to the crime. For appeal purposes, Petitioner was resentenced subsequent to his guilty plea to a charge of failure to provide sex offender registration change of information. In this appeal, Petitioner argued that his sentence shocked the conscience and was disproportionate to the offense. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) Petitioner's sentence does not shock the conscience; and (2) Petitioner failed to establish that his sentence is disproportionate. View "State v. Patrick C." on Justia Law

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Victor Gastelum was convicted by jury of the first degree murder of Terrance Rodgers with the special circumstance of lying-in-wait, and the premeditated attempted murder of J.W. As to both offenses, the jury found that Gastelum participated with the knowledge that another principal in the offense was armed with a firearm. In bifurcated proceedings, the trial court found that Gastelum had suffered a prior prison term and had not remained free of custody or subsequent offense for five years thereafter, therefore sentencing him to consecutive indeterminate terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, plus three years. Gastelum appealed, contending: (1) the trial court erred under California v. Chiu, 59 Cal.4th 155 (2014) by instructing the jury that he could be convicted of first degree lying-in-wait murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine; and (2) the court erred by instructing the jury that it could find true the lying-in-wait special circumstance if it found Gastelum acted with "intent to kill," without specifying whom Gastelum must have intended to kill. In its original opinion, the Court of Appeal found Gastelum's contentions unpersuasive and affirmed the judgment. Gastelum then petitioned for review by the California Supreme Court. He reiterated these contentions and additionally argued that a newly enacted statute, Senate Bill No. 136 (Stats. 2019, ch. 590, sec. 1), should have applied to him. The Supreme Court granted review and transferred the matter back to the Court of Appeals court with directions "to vacate [our] decision and reconsider the cause in light of Senate Bill No. 136[.]" After that reconsideration, the appellate court concluded Senate Bill No. 136 applied here because the judgment against Gastelum was not yet final. Because Gastelum's prior prison term was for spousal abuse, not a sexually violent offense, the one-year prior prison term enhancement could no longer be imposed on him. The Court therefore modified the judgment to strike the one-year prior prison term enhancement and affirmed the judgment as modified. Analysis of Gastelum's original contentions remained unchanged: (1) Chiu did not consider the first degree lying-in-wait murder at issue here, and Gastelum provided no persuasive argument why Chiu should have been extended to this type of murder "particularly where, as here, the defendant and perpetrator are equally culpable, having committed all the same actions that gave rise to the lying-in-wait murder;" and (2) Gastelum forfeited any claim of error by failing to object at trial to the allegedly deficient instruction, and, "assuming that competent counsel would have objected, Gastelum has not shown prejudice based on his counsel's failure to do so." View "California v. Gastelum" on Justia Law

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Diaz was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute drugs. His five co-defendants pled guilty. Albert-Heise, assigned to represent Diaz, accepted a new position. Dissatisfied with his newly-appointed attorney, O’Brien, Diaz requested new counsel, stating that O’Brien pressured him to plead guilty, did not accept Diaz’s advice on pretrial motions, and failed to share discovery. The district court then appointed Kalinowski. Diaz subsequently complained about Kalinowski’s failure to communicate with him. Kalinowski never complied with a court order to respond to Diaz. Diaz again requested new counsel. The court did not inquire further or schedule any hearing and granted a continuance without commenting on Diaz’s request for new counsel. Diaz and Kalinowski appeared together for a pretrial conference; neither raised any issue related to the representation. Twice more, Diaz wrote to the court complaining of Kalinowski. The case proceeded to trial with Kalinowski representing Diaz. The Third Circuit affirmed his conviction, despite expressing concern that the district court “may not have been as attentive to Diaz’s complaints regarding his counsel as it should have been,” and that certain testimony by a government witness violated Rule 701 (lay opinion testimony). The improper testimony did not prejudice Diaz so as to affect his substantial rights. The court did not clearly err when it attributed more than 20 grams of heroin to Diaz at sentencing. View "United States v. Diaz" on Justia Law

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While confined in the Cook County Jail, Koger accumulated books in his cell. Guards removed more than 30. Prisoners may not have more than three books or magazines at a time (excluding religious and legal materials). On remand, the judge granted the defendants summary judgment, holding that the policy is valid under the First Amendment and that it is irrelevant whether the guards asked Koger which books he wanted to keep or what the Jail did with the confiscated books. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part. The court noted Cook County’s stated reasons for the policy: books can be used for coded messages among prisoners, making it necessary to leaf through pages when doing a property search; books may be used to hide drugs, weapons, and other forbidden items. Curtailing the need for labor-intensive searches is a good reason for limiting the number of books in a cell. The court remanded in part. Koger lost a possessory interest in the books but he did not automatically lose his property interest. He was entitled to sell or ship the books, or reclaim them after his confinement. In addition to ascertaining the Jail’s policy, the district court must decide what choices, if any, were offered to Koger concerning the excess books and what became of them. View "Koger v. Cook County" on Justia Law

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After committing crimes when he was seventeen years old, defendant Atorrus Rainer was convicted of two counts of attempted first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault, one count of first-degree burglary, and one count of aggravated robbery. For these crimes, the district court sentenced Mr. Rainer to 224 years in prison. On direct appeal, the convictions were affirmed. But the Colorado Court of Appeals ordered modification of the sentences, concluding that the prison terms for attempted first-degree murder and first-degree assault should have run concurrently, rather than consecutively, because the crimes could have been based on identical evidence. The Colorado Court of Appeals thus modified Mr. Rainer’s sentences to run for 112 years. After the direct appeal, the Supreme Court held in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), that the Eighth Amendment prohibited life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes. Under Graham, these juveniles were entitled to a meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. Defendant sought habeas relief, claiming the State of Colorado deprived him of this opportunity by imposing the 112-year sentence for the crimes he committed as a juvenile. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the State provided defendant with the required opportunity through the combination of the Juveniles convicted as Adults Program, and the general parole program. View "Rainer v. Hansen" on Justia Law

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The cause of Cory's 2006 death was undetermined. The police later reopened the investigation. A grand jury indicted her husband, Lovelace, an Illinois criminal defense lawyer. Lovelace's first trial resulted in a hung jury. In his 2017 retrial, a jury found him not guilty. In a suit against under 42 U.S.C. 1983, Lovelace claimed that the defendants fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses, and concealed exculpatory evidence. The case was assigned to Judge Myerscough. A year later, the case was reassigned to Judge Bruce. Months later, the plaintiffs successfully moved to disqualify Bruce. The case was reassigned back to Myerscough, who informed counsel about circumstances that might seem relevant to her impartiality, her usual practice. Myerscough's daughter had just been hired as an Exoneration Project attorney. The plaintiffs’ law firm funds the Project and donates the time of its attorneys. The plaintiffs’ attorney stated that she worked with the judge’s daughter at the Project but did not supervise her and was not responsible for her compensation. Screening was implemented. Myerscough had recently attended a fundraiser for Illinois Innocence Project, where her daughter previously worked. The fundraiser recognized “exonerees,” including Lovelace. Defendants unsuccessfully requested that Myerscough disqualify herself under 28 U.S.C. 455(a). The Seventh Circuit denied a mandamus petition. There was no reasonable question as to Myerscough’s impartiality; no “objective, disinterested observer” could “entertain a significant doubt that justice would be done” based on the fundraiser. Section 455(b) requires recusal only if a judge’s close relative is “acting as a lawyer in the proceeding” or is known “to have an interest that could be substantially affected.” Nothing beyond the bare fact of the daughter’s employment poses a risk of bias. View "Gibson v. Myerscough" on Justia Law

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A jury found McKinney guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. The judge weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and sentenced McKinney to death. Nearly 20 years later, the Ninth Circuit held on habeas review that the Arizona courts violated Supreme Court precedent (Eddings), by failing to properly consider as relevant mitigating evidence McKinney’s posttraumatic stress disorder. On return to the Arizona Supreme Court, McKinney argued that he was entitled to a jury resentencing, but the court reweighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, as permitted by “Clemons,” and upheld both death sentences. The Supreme Court affirmed. A Clemons reweighing is a permissible remedy for an Eddings error; when an Eddings error is found on collateral review, a state appellate court may conduct a Clemons reweighing on collateral review. Clemons did not depend on any unique effect of aggravators as distinct from mitigators. The Court’s holdings in Ring v. Arizona and Hurst v. Florida, that a jury must find the aggravating circumstance that makes the defendant death-eligible, do not mean that a jury is constitutionally required to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances or to make the ultimate sentencing decision. While an Arizona trial court, not the jury, made the initial aggravating circumstance finding that made McKinney eligible for the death penalty, his case became final on direct review long before Ring and Hurst, which do not apply retroactively on collateral review, The Arizona Supreme Court’s 2018 decision reweighing the factors did not constitute a reopening of direct review. View "McKinney v. Arizona" on Justia Law

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U.S. Border Patrol Agent Mesa, standing on U.S. soil shot and killed Hernández, a 15-year-old Mexican national, who was on Mexican soil, after having run back across the border after entry onto U.S. territory. Mesa contends that Hernández was part of an illegal border crossing attempt. Hernández’s parents claim he was playing a game with his friends that involved running across the culvert. The Department of Justice concluded that Mesa had not violated Customs and Border Patrol policy or training, and declined to bring charges. The government denied Mexico’s request for Mesa to be extradited. Hernández’s parents sought damages under "Bivens," alleging that Mesa violated Hernández’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. On remand from the Supreme Court for reconsideration in light of "Ziglar," the Fifth Circuit again affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed. Bivens does not extend to claims based on a cross-border shooting. Its expansion to recognize causes of action not expressly created by Congress is “a disfavored’ judicial activity.” While Hernández’s Bivens claims are based on the same constitutional provisions as claims in cases in which damages remedies have been recognized, the context—a cross-border shooting—is significantly different and involves a “risk of disruptive intrusion by the Judiciary into the functioning of other branches.” The Court noted that foreign relations are “so exclusively entrusted to the political branches . . . as to be largely immune from judicial inquiry” and noted the risk of undermining border security. Congress has repeatedly declined to authorize the award of damages against federal officials for injury inflicted outside U. S. borders. When Congress has provided compensation for such injuries, it has done so by empowering Executive Branch officials to make payments under appropriate circumstances. View "Hernandez v. Mesa" on Justia Law