This is part 2, focusing on criminal cases.

All opinions are available here.


United States v. Stitt (Dec. 10, 2018), unanimous decision by Breyer.

A couple guys were convicted of possession of a firearm, and were sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 15 years because of three previous convictions for "violent" or drug-related felonies. Among these, they had both been previously convicted under state burglary statutes that applied to a structure "adapted or [that] is customarily used for overnight accommodation." An appeals court said that this didn't fall under the "burglary" term of the federal sentencing law, but SCOTUS disagrees.

Shoop v. Hill (Jan. 7, 2019), per curiam.

Hill was sentenced to death for murder in 1986. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it was unconstitutional to execute someone who is "mentally retarded". Hill filed a new petition in state court based on Atkins, but was again denied. He then filed a petition for habeas corpus under a federal law that allows review of state rulings when those rulings were "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." This time, the appellate court found that the state courts had not properly considered Hill's mental issues, and cited a 2017 Supreme Court case (Moore v. Texas) that said that courts can't ignore the prevailing medical criteria when deciding whether Atkins applies. SCOTUS gets Hill's case and remands, saying that Moore wasn't "clearly established federal law," since it wasn't decided until after the state courts made their decision.

Stokeling v. United States (Jan. 15, 2019), majority by Thomas, joined by Breyer, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Dissent by Sotomayor, joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, and Kagan.

Stokeling was convinced of possession of a firearm by a felon and sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The question is whether his previous conviction for burglary under federal law is considered "violent" for the purposes of the federal sentencing enhancement. The majority says that it is, because burglary at its core requires using enough force to overcome the victim's resistance. (Contrasting with a prior case, Johnson, in which SCOTUS held that battery, which can include any level of force as long as it's unwanted, was not enough to be considered "violent" for the sentencing enhancement.)

The dissent says that the Florida statute is too broad to qualify, and that the majority misinterprets Johnson. In that case, the dissent points out, the Court said that a "violent" crime required "force capable of causing physical pain or injury." Since the Florida law is broader than this, the dissent then says it shouldn't be sufficient for the federal sentencing enhancement.

Moore v. Texas (Feb. 19, 2019), per curiam.

This is actually a follow-up to the death penalty case I discussed above. When Moore I was decided in 2017, SCOTUS remanded the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for further consideration. That court again reached the same conclusion as to whether Moore could be executed. The first time around, the state court had been using factors based around observations of laypeople who knew the defendant, and SCOTUS concluded in Moore I that this was unacceptable, and that courts instead had to use medically-recognized criteria (it also found the state court didn't properly apply those criteria). SCOTUS looks again, and reverses. It says that the Texas court didn't alter its reasoning enough in light of the previous case, such as looking at adaptive strengths rather than deficits.

It's worth noting too that the original prosecutor in the case filed an amicus brief in support of Moore, as did the ABA and American Psychological Association.

Timbs v. Indiana (Feb. 20, 2019), majority by Ginsburg, joined by Roberts, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Gorsuch also wrote a concurrence. Thomas concurred in judgment, but wrote separately.

Timbs pled guilty in state court to drug dealing and conspiracy to commit theft. The state then sought civil forfeiture of an SUV that Timbs had bought with a life insurance payout from his mother's death. The trial court and state appellate courts denied this. They said that because the vehicle cost $42,000 and the maximum fine Timbs could receive for his crimes was $10,000, the forfeiture was disproportionate and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment. But the Indiana Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to states. SCOTUS reverses, saying that it has been incorporated with the Fourteenth Amendment and thus applies to states as well.

Gorsuch writes briefly to say that he thinks the mechanism for incorporation may be different from what the Court is using, but acknowledges that this question doesn't ultimately matter for the outcome of the case since the Excessive Fines Clause would be incorporated either way.

Thomas says the same thing and for the same reasons, but says why in much more detail (writing 13 pages to Gorsuch's 1).

Garza v. Idaho (Feb. 27, 2019), majority by Sotomayor, joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. Dissent by Thomas, joined by Gorsuch and partially by Alito.

Garza entered into two plea agreements stemming from criminal charges in state court. As part of those agreements, he waived his right to appeal. However, he later told his lawyer that he wanted to appeal, but his lawyer said this would be "problematic" in light of the appeal order. The time to file the appeal ran out, and so Garza filed a petition for habaeus, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel.

To prevail on such a claim, a petitioner has to show that the lawyer screwed up and that this prejudiced his case, i.e. no harm no foul. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that failing to file an appeal when requested creates a presumption of prejudice. The majority then notes that there's a difference between filing a notice of appeal and the appeal itself in a criminal context, and that filing the former wouldn't necessarily breach the plea agreement. Moreover, it's also possible that someone could raise claims that are beyond the scope of the appeal waiver. That being the case, the presumption of ineffective assistance holds.

Thomas' dissent goes where you'd probably expect, saying that people shouldn't be able to go back on a waiver, basically. There's a certain inconsistency to his reasoning, though: on the one hand, we should trust defendants to know what they're doing when they waive. But then he says that part of the reason the majority's decision is problematic is that allowing Garza to file an appeal could undo the plea agreement and thus allow the state to file additional charges. It seems strange that he's concerned about one form of prejudice but not another.

He goes on to a third part (which Alito doesn't join) where he in essence argues that "effective" counsel isn't guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment (and seems to even doubt Gideon while he's at it).

Madison v. Alabama (Feb. 27, 2019), majority by Kagan, joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Dissent by Alito, joined by Thomas and Gorsuch.

Madison was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. While on death row, he suffered a series of strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia. He then petitioned a stay of execution due to his mental state.

The Supreme Court previously ruled in 1986 that it was unconstitutional to execute someone who went insane after being sentenced. This was clarified in 2007, when the Court ruled that the person must understand the reason for their execution (at least rationally, in the case of someone who's a sociopath).

Returning to Madison's case, after his sentence (and once a specific date of execution was set, since that's one of the requirements), he argued that his dementia made him not competent to be executed. At least in part, he said that he had no memory of the crime. The state reasoned that even if he did not remember the crime, he still had a rational understanding of why he was being executed. In 2017, the Supreme Court had ruled that just showing that he did not remember the crime (which was all that was discussed by the lower courts at that time) was not per se sufficient to show that he was incompetent.

SCOTUS then sends it back again. There are two issues. First, while the lack of memory is not automatically sufficient, it's still a factor. In addition, the state court wasn't really clear in whether it considered a physical ailment (vascular dementia in this case) the same way that it would a psychological one. The majority points out that the question is about the defendant's state of mind, not the cause of that state. Because it's unclear from the state court's opinion and stuff said during the hearing how they got there, SCOTUS sends it back for further consideration to be sure that the lower court didn't rely on anything it wasn't supposed to or fail to adequately consider Madison's state of mind.

Alito's dissent is less about the merits and more about the procedure. He says that in requesting review, Madison (through counsel) put forth only the question of whether the inability to remember a crime precludes execution. But then, Alito says, he changed tack when actually briefing the case and in oral argument, focusing on the dementia vs. delusion question. SCOTUS's rules state specifically that only the question presented to them in the petition will be addressed, and so Alito concludes that the different arguments should've been dismissed. He finishes with saying that he doesn't think there's any evidence the state court considered things it shouldn't have.

posted by johnnyFive: 220 days ago