Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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The petitioners, 28 women and their minor children, are citizens of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The entered the U.S. in 2015 and were apprehended close to the border. Each indicated a fear of persecution if returned to their native country, claiming that they had been or feared becoming victims of domestic or gang violence. Following interviews with an asylum officer and review by an immigration judge, their fears were found to be not credible and their expedited removal (8 U.S.C. 1225(b)(1)) orders became administratively final. Each filed a habeas petition. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the petitions, finding that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under 8 U.S.C. 1252.1, which circumscribes judicial review for expedited removal orders issued under section 1225(b)(1). The court rejected an argument under the Suspension Clause of the U.S. Constitution: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” The court noted “Petitioners’ surreptitious entry into this country," and Congress’ and the Executive’s plenary power over decisions regarding the admission or exclusion of aliens, in concluding that the limited scope of review is not unconstitutional, as to petitioners and other aliens similarly situated. View "Castro v. United States Dept. of Homeland Sec." on Justia Law

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Heffernan joined the Paterson Police Department in 1985 and became a detective. In 2006, Heffernan’s friend, Spagnola, a former Paterson police chief, sought to unseat the incumbent mayor. Heffernan was unable to vote in the city, did not work on the campaign, and did not consider himself “politically involved.” At the request of his bedridden mother, Heffernan picked up a Spagnola campaign sign, to replace one that had been stolen from her lawn. A member of the Mayor’s security staff observed Heffernan with Spagnola's campaign manager. The next day, Heffernan was demoted to a “walking post” because of his “overt[] involvement in a political election.” Heffernan sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983. His free-association claim resulted in a jury verdict of $105,000. The judge retroactively recused himself and vacated the verdict. A new judge granted the defendants summary judgment; on remand, another judge concluded that Heffernan did not establish that he actually exercised his First Amendment rights. The Third Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. In remanding for trial, the Third Circuit stated that, if, when Heffernan was disciplined, the city had in effect (written or unwritten) a neutral policy prohibiting officers assigned to the Office of the Chief of Police from overt involvement in political campaigns, such a policy meets constitutional standards. The district court must then determine whether Heffernan was aware or reasonably should have been aware of such a policy and whether he was disciplined for what reasonably appeared to be a violation. View "Heffernan v. City of Paterson" on Justia Law

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In 2011, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People submitted an ad for display at the Philadelphia International Airport, offering to pay the prevailing market rate for the ad, which read: “Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world’s people & 25% of the world’s prisoners. Let’s build a better America together. NAACP.org/smartandsafe.” The City of Philadelphia rejected the ad, based on informal practice, While the NAACP’s lawsuit was pending, the city, which owns the airport, adopted the formal policy, preventing private advertisers from displaying noncommercial content at the Airport. Paid advertisements are allowed. The city argued that the policy helps it further its goals of maximizing revenue and avoiding controversy. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment, finding the ban unconstitutional. The court noted that the city acknowledged “substantial flaws” in the city’s justifications. The ban is unreasonable, violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced as written. View "Nat'l Ass'n for the Advancement of Colored People v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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Watson claims that during a 2011 cell search Officer Kline pulled the antenna of Watson’s radio so that it broke off. Kline claims the antenna was already broken and secured with tape. Kline explained that a broken radio was considered contraband that had to be confiscated. Watson accompanied Kline to fill out the confiscation paperwork. Watson asked Kline to prepare an incident report documenting that Kline broke the antenna. Kline refused. Watson then unsuccessfully requested a grievance form. Later that day Watson was summoned to the security office where he was reprimanded for giving officers a “hard time” and was told that he would receive a misconduct. Watson then obtained a form from another prison and filed his grievance against Kline. Watson was ultimately found guilty of misconduct. The penalty was confiscation of Watson’s radio. The Department of Corrections’ Program Review Committee denied an appeal. The district dismissed Watson’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 claims, reasoning that prison officials would have issued the misconduct regardless of Watson’s protected activity. The Third Circuit affirmed in part, but remanded the retaliation claims. Not every violation of prison protocols supported by some evidence will bar a First Amendment retaliation claim, particularly relatively minor offenses, such as a radio antenna secured by tape. View "Watson v. Rozum" on Justia Law

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After a jury trial, Defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced Defendant to death. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the convictions on appeal, rejecting Defendant’s claims that the prosecution violated Brady v. Maryland. The Supreme Court denied Defendant’s application for postconviction relief. Defendant then filed an application under 28 U.S.C. 2254. The district court granted Defendant a conditional writ of habeas corpus and directed the Commonwealth to retry Defendant or release him, concluding that the prosecution had breached its obligations under Brady by withholding three pieces of exculpatory and material information. The Third Circuit initially vacated the district court’s order, but subsequently, acting en banc, affirmed. The suppressed Brady material—a receipt corroborating Dennis’s alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth’s key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder — effectively gutted the Commonwealth’s case against Dennis. The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court. View "Dennis v. Sec'y PA Dept. of Corrs." on Justia Law

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In 2001, Mary Edmond was shot near a North Philadelphia gas station. She died from her injuries. During the investigation, Garcia gave a confession to the police that was self-incriminating, but indicated that Lambert pulled the trigger. When Lambert and Garcia are jointly tried in Pennsylvania state court, Garcia declined to testify, depriving Lambert of the ability to cross-examine him about the confession. The judge redacted the confession in an effort to comply with the Supreme Court holding in Bruton v. United States (1968). When the jury heard Garcia’s confession, Lambert’s name was replaced with terms like “the other guy.” During closing arguments, however, the prosecutor made statements that the defense believed revealed that Lambert was “the other guy.” The judge denied a motion for mistrial, but instructed the jury that the confession could only be used against Garcia and must not be considered as evidence against Lambert. Both were convicted. The Third Circuit reversed and granted habeas relief, based on the Sixth Amendment violation caused by the closing arguments. The error was not harmless. View "Brown v. Greene" on Justia Law

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After a fellow Bucknell University student (Stefanowicz) claimed that Dempsey had sexually assaulted her in his dorm room, the University’s Public Safety Officers (who are police officers) investigated and eventually filed a criminal complaint with an affidavit of probable cause. The charges were later dropped. Dempsey brought a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against Bucknell University, claiming violations of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. In light of the evidence corroborating in substantial part Stefanowicz’s story and the existence of a period of time in which no one disputes the two were alone together in Dempsey’s room, “even taking into account certain facts recklessly omitted from the affidavit of probable cause, a reasonable jury could not find a lack of probable cause.” View "Dempsey v. Bucknell Univ." on Justia Law

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S.D. suffers from “multiple medical problems including chronic sinusitis with frequent acute exacerbations, allergic rhinitis, and intermittent asthma” that allegedly “substantially limit him in . . . the life activity of learning.”. S.D.’s doctor concluded that these medical problems “make it likely that he will have frequent school absence[s] due to acute [and] underlying chronic illness,” and suggested that S.D. “should qualify for [Section] 504 plan modifications for school” under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. 794(a). Dissatisfied with the school’s plan, which involved Saturday sessions and a summer course, his parents sued, citing the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12101–12213, the First and Fourteenth Amendments (42 U.S.C. 1983), and New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. The district court dismissed for failure to exhaust the administrative process provided for by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1400–1482. The Third Circuit affirmed. While the claims alleged discrimination and retaliation for enforcement of the child’s rights under a non-IDEA statute, the alleged injuries are educational in nature and implicate services within the purview of the IDEA, so administrative remedies must be exhausted. View "S. D. v. Haddon Heights Bd. of Educ." on Justia Law

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Parkell, a Delaware state prisoner, claims that state officials deprived him of his rights under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments by subjecting him to unreasonable thrice-daily visual body-cavity searches and harsh conditions and by depriving him of adequate medical care. In his suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the district court granted the defendants summary judgment, concluding that: Parkell could not pursue damages from corrections officials in their official capacities because of the Eleventh Amendment, and any claim for prospective relief was rendered moot when Parkell was moved; his medical needs Eighth Amendment claim failed because any deficiencies in his medical care did not rise to the level of deliberate indifference to his needs; his conditions-of-confinement Eighth Amendment claim failed because the conditions did not constitute a denial of basic human needs, and the defendants were not personally involved in creating the conditions; and his due process claim​ failed because the conditions of his confinement did not constitute atypical and significant hardship in comparison to general prison conditions. The Third Circuit reversed only as to Parkell’s claim under the Fourth Amendment; that the state defendants lacked personal involvement in past constitutional violations does not preclude Parkell from obtaining prospective injunctive relief for ongoing violations. View "Parkell v. Danberg" on Justia Law

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In 2002, at a New Jersey wedding reception, Nguyen shot another guest eight times, killing him. Nguyen shot at another guest, but missed. The bullet lodged in the wall. Several eye witnesses, each of whom knew Nguyen, identified him to the police as the shooter and stated that Nguyen fled the scene in a 1996 Honda with Alabama license plates. They provided Nguyen’s Brooklyn address. When officers arrived at his residence, Nguyen barricaded himself inside with his two-year-old son, and stated that he would shoot his son and the officers if they attempted to enter. After a four-hour standoff, Nguyen was taken into custody. Nguyen pleaded guilty to New York indictments and was sentenced to five-to-15 years. A gun found hidden in Nguyen’s car was confirmed to be the weapon used in the wedding shootings. A New Jersey grand jury indicted him for the shootings. After extensive motion practice and three years pursuing an insanity defense, he pleaded guilty, in 2009, to aggravated manslaughter and attempted murder. Nguyen was sentenced to 20 years, to run concurrently with his New York sentence from the date of his New Jersey guilty pleas. The Third Circuit affirmed denial of his habeas petition, in which Nguyen argued ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to raise a Sixth Amendment speedy trial violation and concerning the trial court’s ruling on the admissibility of his post-arrest statements. Counsel had, in fact, raised the speedy trial issue. View "Nguyen v. Att'y Gen. of NJ" on Justia Law