Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
by
As a felon in possession of a firearm, Wright had three prior convictions for “serious drug offenses,” and qualified as an armed career criminal. A Maryland district judge accepted his plea and gave him the 15-year minimum sentence. Wright did not dispute his Armed Career Criminal Act status, nor did he appeal. Wright unsuccessfully challenged his sentence after the Supreme Court decided, in Johnson, that ACCA's “residual clause” was unconstitutionally vague. Wright’s argument had nothing to do with Johnson or the residual clause, which did not concern drug offenses. After the Supreme Court’s 2016 Mathis decision, Wright was subject to “second or successive” habeas motions limitation, 28 U.S.C. 2255(h). Wright's second habeas corpus petition, filed in the district court where he is imprisoned, was dismissed. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In the Sixth Circuit, a federal prisoner who has already filed a section 2255 motion and cannot file another one, cannot use section 2241 to seek relief just because a new Supreme Court case hints his conviction or sentence may be defective. The prisoner must also show that binding adverse precedent (or some greater obstacle) left him with “no reasonable opportunity” to make his argument either when he was convicted and appealed or when he sought postconviction relief. Wright had several opportunities to raise his “Mathis claim,” free of any procedural impediments or hostile precedents. He cannot now use the saving clause to get "another bite at the apple." View "Wright v. Spaulding" on Justia Law

by
Gresham is serving a 75-year sentence in a Marquette, Michigan state prison. He filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action against prison employees, alleging that they improperly forced him to take antipsychotic medication. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that Gresham must pay a $400 filing fee (28 U.S.C. 1914) before proceeding. The right to proceed “in forma pauperis” and avoid filing fees may be removed for prisoner plaintiffs who abuse the privilege. Prisoners become ineligible to file free lawsuits if the courts have dismissed three or more of their lawsuits as “frivolous, malicious, or [for] fail[ure] to state a claim,” 28 U.S.C. 1915(g). Gresham has at least eight baseless lawsuits. The statute frees poor prisoners from the rule if they are “under imminent danger of serious physical injury.” Gresham alleged that the forced medication caused him “chest pains, akathisia [muscular restlessness], seizures, vomiting, stomach cramps, and dizz[iness].” Those side effects did not amount to an imminent “serious physical injury.” They are typically temporary and rarely life-threatening and are not the kinds of injuries that can lead to impending death or other severe bodily harms. Gresham has not remotely alleged how his complaints could lead to such harms while he is under medical supervision. View "Gresham v. Meden" on Justia Law

by
In 2011, a Cincinnati officer ran the license plate number of an SUV and found that it had been reported stolen. The SUV stopped after the officer activated his emergency lights. When the officer stepped out of his cruiser, the SUV sped away. At over 75 miles-per-hour, the SUV raced through a downtown red light, swiping a vehicle, then slamming into a taxicab. The SUV hit a parking meter and caught fire; its driver ran, leaving his passenger, with leg fractures, inside the burning vehicle. Rescue workers freed the SUV passenger; he survived. The cab’s driver and passenger died immediately. Officers quickly apprehended the SUV’s driver, later identified as Gerth. Although Gerth suffered only minor injuries, police took him to a hospital, where a toxicology test revealed that he had alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine in his system. Gerth was charged with felony murder, aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault, vehicular assault, leaving the scene of the accident, failure to comply with the order or signal of a police officer, and receiving stolen property. A half-dozen attorneys have represented Gerth throughout his trial, appeals, and collateral attacks. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the rejection of his federal habeas petition. Gerth procedurally defaulted a claim that his second appellate counsel failed to argue that the trial court improperly denied his request to proceed pro se. Gerth had no constitutional right to counsel in his reopened appeal and cannot excuse his procedural default. View "Gerth v. Warden, Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution" on Justia Law

by
The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) imposes a mandatory 15-year minimum sentence for a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 922(g) if the defendant has three or more previous convictions for “violent felon[ies]” or “serious drug offense[s],” 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1). Greer pleaded guilty as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), plus 13 counts of armed bank robbery, section 2113, and using a firearm during a crime of violence, section 924(c)). The parties agreed that Greer was punishable under ACCA, given his five prior Ohio convictions for aggravated burglary. The court imposed a 272-month sentence. After the Supreme Court invalidated ACCA’s “residual clause,” and made that decision retroactive to cases on collateral review, Greer moved to vacate his sentence, 28 U.S.C. 2255. The district court denied Greer’s motion holding that his aggravated burglary convictions qualified under ACCA’s enumerated-offense clause. While Greer’s appeal was pending, the Sixth Circuit held that Tennessee’s aggravated burglary statute was not an ACCA “violent felony” because its definition of “habitation” was broader than the enumerated offense of generic burglary under 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). The government conceded that Greer was not properly classified, given the similarity in language between the Tennessee statute and the Ohio statute, reserving the right to withdraw its concession after the Supreme Court decided the issue. The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision concerning the Tennessee statute. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of Greer’s petition for relief. View "Greer v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Henness was convicted of offenses including aggravated murder from conduct occurring in 1992 and was sentenced to death. Henness challenged Ohio’s method of execution under 42 U.S.C. 1983. As his execution date approached, Henness moved to stay his execution, arguing that Ohio's drug protocol (500 milligrams of midazolam, a paralytic agent, and potassium chloride) was likely to cause him to suffer a painful death, and that, given the availability of significantly less painful alternative methods of execution, the use of that protocol would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Though Henness presented expert testimony, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. Neither pulmonary edema nor associated symptoms qualify as serious pain prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Midazolam may cause suffocation but the Eighth Amendment only prohibits forms of punishment that seek to intensify an inmate’s death by “superadd[ing]” feelings of “terror, pain, or disgrace.” Henness did not establish that midazolam is incapable of suppressing his consciousness enough to prevent him from experiencing constitutionally problematic pain. Even if Ohio’s protocol were very likely to cause severe pain, Henness’s proposed alternative method, secobarbital, is not a viable alternative. Secobarbital can, in some instances, take days to cause death. A state may decline to use even a feasible alternative if it has a legitimate reason for doing so. Choosing not to be the first state to experiment with a new method of execution is a legitimate reason. View "In re: Ohio Execution Protocol Litigation" on Justia Law

by
Tennessee’s Billboard Act, enacted to comply with the Federal Highway Beautification Act, 23 U.S.C. 131, provides that anyone intending to post a sign along a roadway must apply to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for a permit unless the sign falls within one of the Act’s exceptions. One exception applies to signage “advertising activities conducted on the property on which [the sign is] located.” Thomas owned a billboard on an otherwise vacant lot and posted a sign on it supporting the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympics Team. Tennessee ordered him to remove it because TDOT had denied him a permit and the sign did not qualify for the “on-premises” exception, given that there were no activities on the lot to which the sign could possibly refer. Thomas argued that the Act violated the First Amendment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that the Act is unconstitutional. The on-premises exception was content-based and subject to strict scrutiny. Whether the Act limits on-premises signs to only certain messages or limits certain messages from on-premises locations, the limitation depends on the content of the message. It does not limit signs from or to locations regardless of the messages. The provision was not severable from the rest of the Act. View "Thomas v. Bright" on Justia Law

by
In 2016, Torres sued his former employer, Precision, alleging that the company had fired him for seeking benefits under Tennessee’s Workers’ Compensation Law. Precision argued that it had not retaliated against Torres and that, even if it had, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 preempted any remedy because Torres had not been authorized to work in the United States, 100 Stat. 3359. The district court granted Precision judgment on the preemption ground without making any factual findings as to the state law claim. The Sixth Circuit vacated. The court skipped past the question of whether state law had been violated in the first place. Under “well-established principles of constitutional avoidance,” the Sixth Circuit declined to address the hypothetical presented by the appeal. Judicial restraint principles apply as much to a question of preemption as to any other question of constitutional law. View "Torres v. Precision Industries, Inc." on Justia Law

by
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. The court held that petitioner could not prevail on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim because, even assuming that counsel provided deficient advice, petitioner failed to establish a reasonable probability that he would have appealed had he received competent advice from counsel. In this case, not only was petitioner's likelihood of success on appeal quite low, but even if he were to succeed on appeal, he also would have likely faced a harsher sentence than he originally received. Therefore, these were strong indicators that petitioner would not have appealed had his counsel given him accurate information. View "Neill v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Bullard was charged with trafficking heroin and as a felon in possession of a firearm. He unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence, then entered a plea agreement that recognized that Bullard could face 10 years to life in prison and that Bullard “may be classified as a career offender.” Bullard had a 2003 Arizona conviction for attempting to sell cocaine and a 2013 Ohio conviction for selling drugs. The court determined that Bullard qualified as a career offender, putting his Guidelines range at 292-365 months. Without the enhancement, Bullard’s range would have been 92-115 months. The court varied downward, sentencing Bullard to 140 months. Bullard had agreed that the convictions made him a career offender. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his motion to suppress. Bullard then sought habeas relief, arguing that the court misclassified him as a career offender and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his attorneys failed to challenge this designation. Bullard argued that the Arizona statute criminalized drugs that are not federally controlled and conduct that falls outside the Guidelines’ definition. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. If Bullard were sentenced today, he would not be a career offender but he is not on direct review. Bullard’s claim that the court misclassified him, resulting in a higher recommended sentence is not cognizable on section 2255 collateral review. While his ineffective assistance claim is cognizable, Bullard cannot satisfy the Strickland standard. View "Bullard v. United States" on Justia Law

by
The Detroit Police Department executed a search warrant on McGrew's home. She heard a bang at the door. When she investigated, Detroit Police Officers were standing in her living room, wearing all black. Masks concealed their faces. She could see only their eyes. One officer threw her to the ground, put his knee in her back and handcuffed her. McGrew stated the handcuffs were tight. The officer responded: “[S]hut up, b----, you shouldn’t be so fat.” When she complained again, he responded: “[I]f you don’t shut your f---ing mouth I can blow your head off and nothing can be done.” Officers seized a bag of marijuana and a pistol, which they documented on the search warrant return. They also allegedly seized but did not mention, another gun, diamond earrings, a tablet computer, and a new-in-the-box phone. Days later, McGrew went to the hospital and was diagnosed with musculoskeletal strain in her chest and bruising on her wrist. McGrew sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, asserting excessive force and deliberate indifference. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of motions based on qualified immunity and governmental immunity and summary judgment in favor of the Department and the officers on an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. McGrew has created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the officers violated her right to be free from excessively tight handcuffing that causes physical injury. McGrew’s right was clearly established at the time. View "McGrew v. Sergeant Duncan" on Justia Law