Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

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T.C.’s estate and the passengers of T.C.’s car sued an Arlington police officer and the City of Arlington for the use of excessive force during a traffic stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court dismissed the passengers’ claims, finding that they could not bring claims as bystanders, and granted summary judgment to the police officer and the City after determining that the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity.   The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the passengers’ claims and vacated the grant of summary judgment on T.C.’s claims and remanded it to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. The court reasoned that here, under T.C’s account, he was shot while he was held in a chokehold in a parked car while evading arrest for several confirmed misdemeanors and an unconfirmed felony parole violation. The police officer was on notice that the use of deadly force is objectively reasonable only where an officer has “a reasonable belief that he or the public was in imminent danger . . . . of death or serious bodily harm.” Again, the officer’s alleged belief that T.C. had a gun was not reasonable, nor was his belief that a parked car posed a danger to himself, the passengers, or the other officers standing on the side of the car. Therefore, the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the officer and perforce dismissing the City. However, because there was no unreasonable use of force against the passengers, no constitutional injury occurred. View "Crane v. City of Arlington" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, a Texas prisoner, appealed the summary judgment dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 claim that a correctional officer at the Allred Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), confiscated Plaintiff’s religious materials in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.   The primary issue on appeal is whether confiscation of Plaintiff’s materials violated Plaintiff’s constitutional rights under the Free Exercise Clause. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. The court explained that Plaintiff conceded that he did not store his religious materials as required by AD-03.72. And the Fifth Circuit Court has previously indicated that TDCJ policies regarding the storage of personal property do not infringe on a prisoner’s right to free exercise of religion. Evaluating AD-03.72 in view of the relevant considerations, the confiscation of Plaintiff’s religious materials was reasonably related to a legitimate penological objective.   The impact of accommodating Plaintiff’s constitutional rights on other prisoners, guards, and prison resources could be great, given the management and safety concerns underlying the policy. Moreover, even if the confiscation had violated Plaintiff’s constitutional rights, the district court correctly found that the correctional officer was entitled to qualified immunity because his actions were objectively reasonable. View "DeMarco v. Bynum" on Justia Law

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Petitioner was convicted by a Georgia jury of kidnapping, robbery, gang rape, and murder. The jury recommended that Petitioner be sentenced to death for his crimes. Having exhausted his state post-conviction remedies, Petitioner filed a federal habeas corpus petition, arguing, as relevant here, that his trial counsel rendered him constitutionally ineffective assistance in connection with the sentencing phase of his trial. The district court denied relief, but a panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed and vacated Petitioner’s death sentence, holding that the state court’s rejection of his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.   The Eleventh Circuit granted rehearing en banc to decide whether the state court’s decision that Petitioner is not entitled to relief on his ineffective assistance claim warrants deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The court affirmed the district court’s denial of Petitioner’s petition and remanded it to the panel. The court held that the state court reasonably concluded that Petitioner was not prejudiced by any of his counsel’s alleged deficiencies in connection with his sentencing proceeding.   The court explained that while Petitioner argues that the background evidence that Mostiler should have presented parallels the evidence in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000), and Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374 (2005), those cases “offer no guidance with respect to whether a state court has unreasonably determined that prejudice is lacking” because the Supreme Court “did not apply AEDPA deference to the question of prejudice in those cases.” View "Willie James Pye v. Warden, Georgia Diagnostic Prison" on Justia Law

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On April 24, 2019, Deputy Brott stopped defendant-appellant Arthur Vivian’s car because Vivian’s brake lights were not working. Brott recorded the stop using a body camera. Vivian informed Brott that his license had been suspended and Brott began investigating the reason for Vivian’s suspended license. After five minutes and forty seconds of interaction with Vivian, Brott returned to his vehicle to run Vivian’s license. Brott talked to Officer Short, who had recently arrived at the scene. Short advised Brott that there was a possibility there could be narcotics in Vivian’s vehicle. Brott called for a drug detecting K-9 unit nine minutes into the stop. Brott exited his patrol car with the completed citation and Vivian’s license at sixteen minutes and forty-six seconds into the stop. Deputy Hickam and a drug detecting K-9 arrived eighteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds into the stop. At nineteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds Brott approached Vivian’s vehicle, asked Vivian to exit the vehicle and requested to pat him down. Brott issued the suspended license citation at twenty minutes and forty seconds. During the time Brott explained the citation to Vivian, the drug K-9 alerted to a controlled substance in the vehicle. A subsequent search discovered a bag containing methamphetamine. Vivian appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained following his traffic stop, arguing the stop was unlawfully extended, and statements made before and after the delay were gathered in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The State contended that evidence of the drugs would have been inevitably discovered, and thus statements made relating to those drugs were admissible under the same doctrine. The Idaho Supreme Court rejected that argument, finding verbal statements were different than physical evidence "because a defendant could choose, if given time for reflection, not to make the statements or to answer differently." The Court held the inevitable discovery exception did not apply to statements that would otherwise be excluded as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” The district court’s decision that Vivian’s post-Miranda statements were admissible was reversed, Vivian’s judgment of conviction was vacated, and the case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Idaho v. Vivian" on Justia Law

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Brian Brookins was convicted by jury of the murders of Sandra Suzanne Brookins and Samantha Rae Giles and of related crimes. The jury declined in its guilt/innocence phase verdict to find Brookins “mentally retarded” or “mentally ill.” At the conclusion of the sentencing phase, the jury found multiple statutory aggravating circumstances and sentenced Brookins to death for each of the two murders. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Brookins’s convictions and sentences. View "Brookins v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Vernon Beamon was convicted by jury of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting deaths of Sylvia Watson and Samuel White. Beamon appealed, arguing that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his convictions and that his convictions for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony should have merged. After review, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed with both contentions and affirmed. View "Beamon v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Walter Lowe was convicted by jury of felony murder and other offenses in connection with the July 2017 shooting death of his wife, Erica Powell. The jury also found Lowe guilty of family violence aggravated assault and cruelty to children in the third degree, crimes that occurred in 2015. Lowe raised two claims of error, both of which were related to the joinder in one indictment of the 2015 acts of domestic violence against Powell and her 2017 murder: (1) the trial court erred in denying Lowe’s motion to sever; and (2) trial counsel’s deficient argument in support of Lowe’s motion to sever constituted ineffective assistance. The Georgia Supreme Court found that because Lowe’s 2015 criminal acts involving Powell would have been admissible in the trial of Powell’s 2017 murder pursuant to OCGA § 24-4-404 (b), Lowe did not show the trial court abused its discretion by denying the motion to sever. The Court found Lowe's second enumeration of error lacked merit because severance was properly denied based upon the relevant and controlling Georgia law counsel cited in his severance motion and supporting brief. Consequently, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s order denying Lowe’s motion for a new trial. However, the Court vacated Lowe’s felony murder sentences and remand for resentencing on those counts because the trial court erred in sentencing Lowe on two counts of felony murder when there was a single victim. View "Lowe v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Rashad Barber appealed his convictions for malice murder and other crimes arising out of the 2014 shooting death of Darius Bottoms. On appeal, Barber contended: (1) the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction for murder because the only evidence inculpating him in this crime was presented through the testimony of an alleged accomplice; (2) the trial judge erred by failing to recuse himself after making statements revealing a personal bias; and (3) that the trial court erred when it resentenced him on the charges of participation in criminal street gang activity and possession of a firearm. Finding no reversible error, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. View "Barber v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Douglas Pritchett appealed his conviction for malice murder in connection with the 2017 death of Richard Danley. On appeal, Pritchett argued the trial court erred in denying his amended motion for new trial because: (1) his conviction was based upon insufficient evidence; (2) the trial court improperly admitted the State’s evidence proffered under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b); and (3) he received ineffective assistance of counsel. He also claimed he was entitled to a new trial based on the cumulative and collective prejudice resulting from trial court error and the deficient performance of his trial counsel. After review of the trial court record, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed Pritchett's conviction. View "Pritchett v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Curtis Jackson was convicted by jury of malice murder in connection with the 2015 shooting death of Vernard Mays. On appeal, Jackson argued the trial court erred: (1) in failing to instruct the jury that it must find corroboration for an accomplice’s testimony; and (2) in failing to excuse Juror Number 22 for cause. Finding no reversible error, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. View "Jackson v. Georgia" on Justia Law