Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals

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Van Tran was born in 1966 in Vietnam, the son of an American serviceman who died two years later. He lived in poverty, and as a child, suffered severe social deprivation. He attended one year of school in the U.S., and dropped out in 1984. In 1987, Van Tran and three others robbed a Memphis restaurant, from which he had been fired. Three people were killed and a 75-year-old woman was beaten unconscious. Van Tran twice shot a 74-year-old woman and shot another victim in the face. He confessed participation in the robbery, was convicted of three counts of felony murder, and was sentenced to death for each on the basis of aggravating circumstances, that the murder was “especially cruel in that it involved depravity of mind.” The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the convictions, but reversed his death sentence for two murders, finding that there was sufficient evidence that killing the older woman evinced “depravity of mind.” Van Tran sought state post-conviction relief, claiming ineffective assistance and that he should not be executed because he is mentally retarded and incompetent. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed denial of relief, noting that Van Tran’s I.Q. was above 70. Van Tran moved to reopen his petition in 2000, alleging that new evidence established that he was mentally retarded. The Tennessee Supreme Court announced that execution of mentally retarded persons was prohibited by the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions. On remand, the court denied relief, finding that Van Tran had not demonstrated the existence of deficits in adaptive behavior nor the manifestation of deficits before the age of 18. The appellate court agreed. The district court denied federal habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit remanded to allow the state court to apply the proper standard in assessing whether Van Tran is intellectually disabled such that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment under Atkins v. Virginia. The court affirmed on the issues of whether, as applied, the “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating circumstance of the jury instruction violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments; and whether Van Tran’s penalty phase counsel was ineffective. View "Van Tran v. Colson" on Justia Law

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The Green Party of Tennessee and the Constitution Party of Tennessee sought to appear on general election ballots as minor political parties. They filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, challenging laws that they claimed have unconstitutionally impeded their access to the ballot. The district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs; the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded, in part because Tennessee had amended the statutes at issue. On remand, the district court again granted the plaintiffs’ motion. The Sixth Circuit reversed in part, first holding that the plaintiffs had standing to challenge Tennessee’s election laws, but held that summary judgment was inappropriate. The court remanded the questions of whether the state’s ballot-access scheme for minor political parties unconstitutionally burdens the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and whether the state’s preferential ballot-ordering statute impermissibly discriminates against minor political parties in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The plaintiffs are a prevailing party entitled to attorney’s fees, but the court vacated the district court’s fee award and remanded for recalculation. View "Green Party of TN v. Hargett" on Justia Law

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Charged with unlawful possession of a rifle, Tomlinson was represented by an Assistant Federal Public Defender. The venire included 36 prospective jurors. The court awarded Tomlinson 10 peremptory challenges and the government six. The court and counsel questioned the jurors. After each of three rounds consisting of “for cause” review, followed by peremptory challenges, both counsel stated that they had no objections to the strikes of the other party. In the fourth round, each party exercised its last peremptory strike. Tomlinson objected to the government’s strike against Jackson, an African American woman, stating: “I think we are going to bring a Batson challenge. I think all of the strikes by the government were African-Americans.” The court ruled that Tomlinson had waived any objection to the government’s first five strikes by failing to object earlier. After the prosecutor stated race-neutral reasons for striking Jackson, defense counsel renewed her objection and reiterated that all six of the government’s peremptory strikes were used against African Americans. The court analyzed Tomlinson’s objection only with respect to Jackson and explained why it was persuaded that the strike was not based on race. The trial continued and the jury convicted Tomlinson. The Sixth Circuit reversed. Tomlinson’s Batson objection was timely because he raised it before the jury was sworn and the trial commenced. View "United States v. Tomlinson" on Justia Law

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While working as a home care provider, Carl experienced a psychotic break, urinating on one client’s head. Muskegon County prosecutors charged Carl with vulnerable-adult abuse. He was held at the county jail, which contracted mental health services to CMH. CMH employees examined Carl at the jail. McLaughlin, a physician’s assistant, indicated that Carl was “floridly psychotic,” that he had considered suicide, and that he required treatment in a psychiatric facility. McLaughlin had previously prescribed Carl an anti-psychotic medication but noted that it was “not very effective.” Weinert, a limited licensed psychologist, documented that Carl was “paranoid” and “require[d] intensive psychiatric treatment” and hospitalization. Dr. Jawor, a CHM independent contractor, examined Carl two days later. Carl denied feeling depressed, suicidal,or homicidal, and denied having paranoid delusions and hallucinations. Carl stated that he was “messing with” Weinert and McLaughlin. Jawor concluded that he did not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization. Carl sued (42 U.S.C. 1983) arguing that, due in part to Jawor’s negative certification, he did not receive mental health services he needed and that his uncontrolled psychotic state worsened, seriously harming his mental and physical health while detained. All defendants except Jawor were dismissed after signing a settlement agreement. The district court held that Jawor was not a state actor. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that Jawor acted under color of state law because she performed a public function by evaluating an individual in state custody. View "Carl v. Muskegon Cnty." on Justia Law

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Five death-row inmates, housed in a maximum-security prison in Kentucky, filed suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-1(a), which prohibits state and local governments from placing “a substantial burden” on the “religious exercise” of any inmate unless they establish that the burden furthers a “compelling governmental interest” and does so in the “least restrictive” way. They made various claims, some related to requests to practice their Native American faith, some related to a request for clergy visits. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the prison officials. The Sixth Circuit reversed in part, holding that there was a triable issue of fact over whether RLUIPA gives the inmates a right to have access to a sweat lodge for faith-based ceremonies and a triable issue of fact over whether RLUIPA gives the inmates a right to buffalo meat and other traditional foods for a faith-based once-a-year powwow? RLUIPA, however, does not permit inmates to collect money damages from prison officials sued in their individual capacities. View "Haight v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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Over several years, Douglas sexually abused the dead bodies of murder victims held at the Hamilton County Morgue. His abuse of a body in 1982 led to a false rape conviction. Douglas’s actions were discovered in 2007 after his DNA was matched to semen found in the bodies. Douglas admitted to the abuse. He was under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine every time he abused the bodies. Douglas was supervised by Kersker, the morgue director. Kersker admitted having concerns about Douglas’s tardiness and dependability as early as 1980. A co-worker testified that he often smelled alcohol on Douglas before, during, or after his shift. Douglas testified that his cocaine addiction was so bad by 1992 that he could not perform his duties due to heavy shaking. Douglas’s former wife testified that she called Kersker to complain that Douglas was drinking at work. Kersker hung up on her. Kersker may have known that Douglas was often having sex with live women at the morgue. Kersker knew about a domestic violence charge and DUIs because Douglas requested vacation time for incarceration. Douglas testified that he told Kersker about his suicide attempt, his psychiatric hospital stay, and his alcoholism. Kersker’s supervision of Douglas never changed. Relatives sued Douglas, who was also convicted of gross abuse of a corpse, and his supervisors, under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court rejected the claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. A jury could find that the defendants recklessly and wantonly failed to supervise Douglas despite the known risks he posed to the bodies, so the court properly denied Ohio statutory immunity. The relatives, however, cannot establish a constitutional violation, despite the special nature of their relationship to their deceased relatives. View "Range v. Douglas" on Justia Law

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Wershe was 17 years and 10 months old when he was arrested in Detroit and charged with various drug crimes. He was convicted of possession with the intent to deliver more than 650 grams of cocaine, and, in 1988, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At sentencing, Wershe was 18 years and 7 months old. In 1992, the Michigan Supreme Court declared the life-without-parole penalty for simple possession unconstitutional. Wershe’s first opportunity for parole was denied in 2003. In 2012, the Parole Board determined that it had no interest in taking action on his case and scheduled Wershe’s next interview for 2017. Wershe brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against Michigan Parole Board members, alleging that the parole consideration process did not afford him a meaningful opportunity for release in violation of his rights to due process and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The district court sua sponte dismissed for failure to state a claim pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of Wershe’s due-process claim, but vacated with respect to the Eight Amendment because the district court failed to consider the impact of Wershe’s youth at the time of the crime and his arrest. View "Wershe v. Combs" on Justia Law

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On the basis of a cooperating defendant's tip, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task force set up surveillance along an interstate in eastern Kentucky, hoping to intercept members of a methamphetamine-trafficking operation. Detective Robert Hart, a task force member, found a car suspected of involvement with the operation. The detective trailed the automobile in an unmarked car, radioed a local officer (Adam Ray) and asked Officer Ray to initiate a traffic stop on the basis of a traffic violation. Detective Hart told Officer Ray only that the car was suspected of being linked to a DEA drug investigation. Officer Ray initiated the stop and discovered the Tahoe's driver, Defendant-Appellant, Marcus Adkins, and one passenger, Defendant-Appellant, Courtney Junior Noble. Adkins gave Officer Ray permission to search the car. The officer found several baggies of methamphetamine, a pipe used for smoking drugs, and a handgun on Noble's person. He arrested Noble and Adkins. In addition, the task force used this evidence to obtain a search warrant for a motel room suspected of being a way station for the traffickers. In the room, the task force found Defendant-Appellant Dena Brooks, pills, and a scale for weighing drugs. A grand jury indicted all three on charges of possession with intent to sell methamphetamine and conspiracy to sell methamphetamine; it also indicted Noble on a gun charge. Noble moved to suppress the evidence found as a result of Officer Ray's frisk. Adkins and Brooks joined this motion, which the district court denied in full after holding a hearing. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit concluded that Officer Ray lacked sufficient particularized and objective indicia to believe that Noble was armed and dangerous. As a result, the Court reversed the district court's denial of Noble's motion to suppress, vacated his conviction, and remanded the case for further proceedings. Because the government never objected to, and explicitly waived an argument related to, Adkins's and Brooks' lack of standing to challenge Officer Ray's frisk of Noble, the Court also reversed the district court's denial of their motions to suppress, vacated their convictions, and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Noble" on Justia Law

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A jury convicted Marquis Heard of numerous drug and money-laundering offenses after a three-day trial in which Heard represented himself. He argued on appeal to the Sixth Circuit was that the district court was obligated to proceed with a hearing to determine his competency to stand trial. Heard also argued that his decision to represent himself was not voluntary. After review of the district court record, the Sixth Circuit rejected his arguments and affired. View "United States v. Heard" on Justia Law

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McMullan and Smith, friends of 30 years, were related by marriage. They were addicts. During a drug-related fight, McMullan snatched a revolver from his wife and pointed the gun one foot from Smith’s chest. The gun fired. Smith later died from the gunshot wound to the chest. When witness McDowell testified at trial, he had a pending cocaine charge. Because McDowell had denied ever using crack cocaine at a preliminary hearing, McMullan’s counsel sought to cross-examine him about the charge to impeach McDowell’s credibility. The trial court denied the request. The court instructed the jury on the first-degree murder charge and on second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. McMullan's requested involuntary-manslaughter instruction was denied. Convicted of second-degree murder, possession of a firearm during commission of a felony, and as a felon in possession of a firearm, McMullan was determined to be a fourth-felony habitual offender. The court in McDowell’s case granted the government’s motion to downgrade McDowell’s cocaine charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. McMullan’s counsel unsuccessfully sought a new trial because of McDowell’s plea deal. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected arguments relating to the involuntary-manslaughter instruction; counsel’s failure to cross-examine McDowell about the plea bargain; and failure to disclose the plea agreement. The Michigan Supreme Court granted affirmed on the sole issue of the jury instruction was warranted. McMullan unsuccessfully sought a writ of habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments relating to the jury instruction and the plea agreement. View "McMullan v. Booker" on Justia Law