Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Delaware Supreme Court
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Appellant DeJoynay Ferguson pled guilty to one count of Murder by Abuse or Neglect in the First Degree, six counts of Child Abuse in the First Degree, and two counts of Child Abuse in the Second Degree. The plea was made pursuant to a plea agreement under which the State entered a nolle prosequi as to other remaining charges. The sentencing judge imposed a sentence of life in prison. He also sentenced her to ten years at Level V on each of the Child Abuse in the First Degree charges, suspended after two years on each. He sentenced her to probation on the two counts of Child Abuse in the Second Degree. Ferguson appealed her sentences, contending the sentencing judge sentenced her for the sole purpose of retribution; that he sentenced her with a closed mind; that he was unwilling to consider the mitigation evidence and arguments she presented; and that her sentence violated her right to due process. Finding no reversible error, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court. View "Ferguson v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Under New Castle County, Delaware's Unified Development Code, heavy industrial uses were permitted as of right on land zoned for heavy industry or HI. On August 27, 2019, New Castle County Council adopted Ordinance 19-046 amending the Code, then stating that property owners with HI-zoned property had to obtain a special use permit from the County before expanding Heavy Industry use of their property. Croda, Inc. filed a complaint in the Court of Chancery to enjoin enforcement of Ordinance 19-046, claiming, among other things, that Ordinance 19-046 was invalid because the Ordinance title did not put Croda and the public on notice of the substance of the zoning amendment in violation of state and county law and federal due process guarantees. The Court of Chancery dismissed Croda’s state law claims as untimely under the state sixty-day statute of repose and rejected its constitutional claims because Croda did not have a vested right in a zoning category. On appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court, Croda claimed the Court of Chancery erred because the alleged lack of proper notice tolled the statute of repose, and it did not have to show a vested right to state a procedural due process claim. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery’s judgment: the statute of repose was not subject to tolling. "And while our reasoning is different than that of the Court of Chancery, Croda’s procedural due process claim fails because those protections do not apply to the County’s legislative acts adopting the Ordinance." View "Croda Inc. v. New Castle County" on Justia Law

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Appellant Wilbur Medley, appealed a superior court's denial of his motion for sentence modification. Medley was convicted after pleading guilty to second degree burglary pursuant to an agreement. In challenging his sentence, Medley argued: (1) the superior court improperly delegated its sentencing authority because DOC staff and court administrative staff amended his original sentence order to strip him of 563 days of credit time; and (2) the sentencing judge denied his right to be present with counsel for sentencing when the judge, sua sponte and without a hearing, issued the amended sentence. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court rejected Medley’s contentions and affirmed the denial of sentence modification. View "Medley v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Craig Melancon was shot three times: once from a .22 caliber firearm, and twice from what appeared to be a .38 revolver. A friend, Anthony Coursey, and another bystander, Marla Johnson, saw two hooded individuals running from the scene. Coursey later identified one of the fleeing men as Reuel Ray. Ray was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, felony murder, attempted robbery, and related crimes, for which he received a life sentence plus 20 years. He appealed those convictions to the Delaware Supreme Court, claiming that the trial court erred by: (1) not granting a mistrial after a juror expressed concerns for her safety; and (2) not providing the jury with certain cautionary instructions, neither of which Ray requested, following the denial of Ray’s mistrial request. In 2017, the Supreme Court affirmed Ray’s convictions. Soon after that, Ray moved for postconviction relief claiming: (1) the State’s failure to disclose that, approximately one month before Ray’s trial, it had dismissed a criminal charge then pending against a key prosecution witness violated his due process rights under Brady v. Maryland; (2) his trial counsel’s inadequate pretrial investigation, which failed to uncover the witness’s pending charge and its eventual dismissal, constituted ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of Ray’s right to counsel and due process; and (3) his counsel failed to provide effective representation at trial and on appeal by allowing an obviously flawed jury instruction on the elements of felony murder to guide the jury’s deliberations. The Superior Court rejected each of Ray’s arguments. The Supreme Court determined that the Superior Court’s erroneous felony-murder instruction and Ray’s counsel’s failure to object or to raise the error on direct appeal warranted a new trial on the felony-murder charge and the related firearm charge. The Supreme Court rejected, however, Ray’s contention that the State’s Brady violation justified relief as to all his convictions. Because those convictions were not influenced by the flawed felony-murder instruction and were supported by abundant evidence independent of the putatively biased witness’s testimony, the Court expressed confidence in them. View "Ray v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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After a hearing, a superior court held James Plaches in violation of the terms of his probation after he admitted to police contact. The court sentenced Plaches to seven years of unsuspended prison time, followed by community supervision with conditions. On appeal, Plaches argued he could not have violated his probation by complying with a condition of his probation, namely, reporting police contact. Plaches argued the court specifically found one fact, police contact, and based on that finding, the Superior Court erroneously held that “‘obviously’ the [c]ourt must find that [Plaches] violated the terms and conditions of his probation.” The Delaware Supreme Court was unable to determine on this record what evidence the Superior Court relied on when it found Plaches in violation of his probation. Therefore, it reversed the Superior Court's judgment and remanded for additional findings. View "Plaches v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In a bench trial, a Delaware superior court found Appellant Tajiir Patterson guilty of invasion of privacy for filming a sexual encounter with D.L. and distributing the video over social media without her consent. The court sentenced Patterson to two years at Level V incarceration, suspended for twelve months at Level III probation. As part of the investigation, the Police extracted data, including over 9,000 photos, from D.L.’s cell phone. Patterson’s counsel was permitted to inspect these photos. The encounter occurred in late 2017, and nearly three years passed between the time of the recording and the trial. Because D.L.’s appearance had changed significantly during that time, the State sought to introduce “Photo 1” into evidence to show her appearance at the time of the recording. Patterson’s counsel objected because Photo 1 was not disclosed in discovery. The trial judge sustained the objection, ruling that photos not disclosed in discovery would be inadmissible, but photos contained within the cell phone extraction would be admissible. The State then sought to introduce “Photo 2” into evidence, which was of D.L. from 2017 and was included in the cell phone extraction. Patterson’s counsel objected. Photo 2 was admitted into evidence. Patterson seeks reversal of his conviction, contending that the State violated its discovery obligations by not flagging the importance of the 2017 photos of D.L. and by not providing a copy of all the photos in D.L.’s phone. Patterson argued the trial court abused its discretion by allowing Photo 2 into the record given the State’s alleged discovery violation. Finding the State did not violate its discovery obligation, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting Photo 2 into evidence. View "Patterson v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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This case arose from the murder of Jamier Vann-Robinson at an after-prom house party in Dover, Delaware on May 12, 2018. On May 14, 2018, Appellant Ahmir Bailey and codefendant Eugene Riley were arrested in connection with the crime. Bailey was indicted on 16 offenses, including Murder in the First Degree and Attempted Murder in the First Degree. The charges against defendants were severed so that each could be tried separately. Bailey appealed his convictions of Murder in the First Degree and related offenses, claiming only that the Superior Court erred by refusing to admit into evidence a witness’s juvenile adjudication of delinquency for Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon (“CCDW”), and the witness’s probationary status resulting therefrom. This error, he claimed, violated his constitutional right to confront the witness. The Delaware Supreme Court rejected Bailey’s claim and affirmed the Superior Court. View "Bailey v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Adria Brock (“Mother”) appealed a Family Court decision terminating her parental rights over her daughter (“K.C.” or “child”). In its decision, the Family Court found that the Department of Services for Children, Youth, and Their Families (“DSCYF”) established one of the statutory grounds for terminating the Mother’s parental rights: that the Mother’s parental rights over K.C.’s siblings were involuntarily terminated in a prior proceeding. At the time of the termination hearing, this statutory ground was found at 13 Del. C. 1103(a)(6) and provided for termination where “[t]he respondent’s parental rights over a sibling of the child who is the subject of the petition [had] been involuntarily terminated in a prior proceeding.” The Family Court also found that termination of the Mother’s parental rights was in the best interests of the child. On appeal, Mother argued Section 1103(a)(6) violated her right to due process under the federal and state constitutions because “it creates a presumption that she is unfit to parent any child presently solely because her parental rights [over] older children were previously terminated in North Carolina.” Mother also claimed that “[t]he statutory ‘best interest’ of the child factors set out under 13 Del. C. 722 do not sufficiently address a parent’s present ability to provide adequate care for the child”; that “DSCYF did not present evidence or argument during the trial to support a finding under 11 Del. C. 1103(a)(6) that the Appellant was unfit and that termination of parental rights was in the child’s best interest”; and that “[t]here is insufficient evidence under the clear and convincing standard to demonstrate that the parent is unfit under a best interest of the child analysis.” After considering each of Mother’s arguments, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded that the Family Court’s decision should have been affirmed. View "Brock v. Department of Services for Children, Youth, and their Families" on Justia Law

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Defendant Brian Wilson was convicted by jury of first-degree murder for hiring someone to kill Allen Cannon. On appeal, Wilson argued: (1) the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to allow testimony about a witness’s reputation as a snitch introduced to counter the witness’s incriminatory statement about Wilson and the murder; (2) the court erred when it overruled a hearsay objection and admitted text messages that infer Wilson was the person responsible for Cannon’s murder; and (3) the State committed a Brady violation when it failed to disclose a witness’s agreement with federal prosecutors to testify in Wilson’s trial in exchange for a possible lighter sentence. Finding no reversible error, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed Wilson’s convictions. View "Wilson v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In 2019, defendant Kevin Miller was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Jeremiah McDonald. Miller appealed, arguing that the State committed prosecutorial misconduct by: (1) misrepresenting to the jury that Miller asserted at least two separate alibis for McDonald’s murder; and (2) interfering with his constitutional right to testify. He also claimed the Superior Court abused its discretion by admitting a witness’s out-of-court statements on the grounds of forfeiture by wrongdoing. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment. The Supreme Court concluded it could not conclude that the State knew that the two alibis referred to two separate murders. Furthermore, the State’s actions regarding Miller’s constitutional right to testify had the effect of reinforcing his right, not interfering with it. Finally, any error by the Superior Court was harmless. View "Miller v. Delaware" on Justia Law