Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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In 1995, a Memphis restaurant manager was murdered during a closing-time robbery. Saulsberry worked at the restaurant and helped plan the robbery but was not there during the robbery. In his state trial, the judge forbade the jury from considering the murder counts together. Only if the jury found Saulsberry not guilty of premeditated murder could it “proceed to inquire whether [he is] guilty of [either count of felony murder].” The jury convicted Saulsberry of premeditated murder, robbery, and conspiracy. He received a life sentence. The jury did not return a verdict on the two felony murder counts. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Saulsberry’s robbery and conspiracy convictions but reversed the murder conviction. On remand, Saulsberry moved to dismiss the new prosecution on double jeopardy grounds, but the state courts rejected the argument. In 2010, a new jury convicted him of both counts of felony murder. Saulsberry’s direct appeal and applications for state post-conviction relief failed. In 2007, Saulsberry filed an uncounseled habeas petition while awaiting retrial in Tennessee, arguing double jeopardy. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of his petition. Saulsberry’s jury had no chance to render a verdict on the felony murder counts. There was no mistrial here. That jeopardy can end by another means in another setting does not show an implied acquittal here. View "Saulsberry v. Lee" on Justia Law

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Clayton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for sexually exploiting minors. One minor, J.P. texted her father from Clayton’s house, saying she was being held against her will. Her father called Battle Creek Police. Police and J.P.’s father raced to Clayton’s house. Clayton’s roommate stated J.P. had left. J.P.’s father immediately received another text, alerting him that J.P. was in the house. Officers stormed inside. They found Clayton, loaded guns, brass knuckles, cocaine powder, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia. J.P. was traumatized and hysterical. Clayton was arrested. Before questioning him, Detective Sutherland read Clayton his Miranda rights from the Department’s standard form: Before we ask you any questions, you must understand your rights. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer before we ask you any questions. If you cannot afford to have a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. Do you understand your rights? Clayton: Yes. Sutherland failed to follow “[y]ou have the right to talk to a lawyer” with “and to have him/her with you during questioning.” At his third interview, Clayton stated: “Hell yeah I want to f[***]ing talk,” then made a statement and provided the password to unlock his cellphone. Clayton’s DNA was found on J.P.’s body; officers found 37 videos of Clayton engaging in sex acts with minors; videos of him weighing cocaine and holding a firearm; and text messages discussing sex trafficking. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence. The critical features of Miranda were conveyed to Clayton. Nothing in the words used indicated that counsel’s presence would be restricted during questioning. View "United States v. Clayton" on Justia Law

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Shortly before his high school graduation, 18-year-old Kyle apparently experimented with LSD. The after-effects afflicted him for several days, resulting in his having to be removed from class because of behavioral issues. Kyle’s friend, Collin, checked in on him after school, then went to the police and told them that Kyle needed help and that Kyle was armed and upset with his mother. Four officers went to the house, not knowing that the mother was not actually home with Kyle. Without waiting for a warrant, the officers entered Kyle’s home. He appeared at the foot of the basement stairs, wielding a lawnmower blade. When the officers attempted to subdue Kyle with a taser, he came up the basement stairs swinging. The lawnmower blade struck an officer, who fell back, then shot and killed Kyle. The Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants in a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Calling the case “heart-rending, the court stated that given the circumstances and governing case law, the officers’ entry into Kyle’s home was justified under the exigent-circumstances exception and the use of force did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The officer had probable cause to believe that Kyle posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury. View "Baker v. City of Trenton" on Justia Law