Friday, December 19, 2014

Could (and should) Colorado (or others) respond to attack on marijuana legalization by counter-attacking federal prohibition?

As detailed in this prior post, yesterday Nebraska and Oklahoma filed suit in the US Supreme Court seeking "a declaratory judgment stating that Sections 16(4) and (5) of Article XVIII of the Colorado Constitution [legalizing and regulating marijuana sales] are preempted by federal law, and therefore unconstitutional and unenforceable under the Supremacy Clause, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution."  I find this lawsuit fascinating for any number of reasons, and I am still trying to understand the procedures through which the Justices will consider this case and I am still thinking through some of the implications of the claims being made by Nebraska and Oklahoma.  And, as the title of this post suggests, I am wondering if this case might enable advocates for marijuana reform to bring complaints about federal marijuana prohibition directly to the Supreme Court. 

This thought occurred to me in part because the SCOTUS filing by Nebraska and Oklahoma relies so very heavily on the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug.  Here are passages from the filing to that end:

Congress has classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug.  21 U.S.C. § 812(c).  Schedule I drugs are those with a high potential for abuse, lack of any accepted medical use, and absence of any accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment. § 812(b)(1)....

Because Congress explicitly found that marijuana has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and had categorized marijuana as a “Schedule I” drug, the CSA was enacted in order to eradicate the market for such drugs. As such, the United States argued [in Gonzales v. Raich a decade ago], “the CSA makes it unlawful to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess any Schedule I drug for any purpose, medical or otherwise, except as part of a strictly controlled research project.”

There has been lots of litigation in the past attacking in the DC Circuit the rationality of marijuana's placement on Schedule I in light of scientific evidence that marijuana has medical potentials. But all that litigation took place before a majority of states (now numbering well over 30) had formally legalized medical marijuana in some form. In light of all the recent state reform supportive of medical marijuana, I think new claims could (and perhaps should) now be made that it is entirely irrational (and thus unconstitutional) for Congress in the CSA to keep marijuana as a Schedule I drug.

Consequently, it seems to me one possible way (of many) for Colorado to defend its marijuana reform would be to assert a new full-throated attack on federal marijuana prohibition in the Supreme Court in light of the "new evidence" that the majority of US jurisdictions recognize in law the potential value of marijuana as medicine.

I doubt that Colorado will seek to attack Congress or the CSA is defense of its marijuana reform efforts. But perhaps others who in the past have legally attacked the rationality of marijuana's placement on Schedule I will see the special opportunity provided by this notable new lawsuit as an opportunity to take their arguments directly to the Supreme Court.

Recent related post:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

December 19, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Regulating Sexual Harm: Strangers, Intimates, and Social Institutional Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this timely paper authored by Allegra McLeod now appearing on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The criminal regulation of sexual harm in the United States is afflicted by deep pathology. Although sexual harm appears before the law in a variety of forms — from violent rape, to indecent exposure, to the sexual touching by an older child of a younger child — the prevailing U.S. criminal regulatory framework responds to this wide range of conduct with remarkable uniformity.  All persons so convicted are labeled “sex offenders,” and most are subjected to registration, community notification, and residential restrictions, among other sanctions.  These measures purport to prevent the perpetration of further criminal sexual harm by publicizing the identities and restricting the residential opportunities of persons presumed to be strangers to their victims.

But even as these measures render many subject to them homeless and unemployable, sexual abuse remains pervasive and significantly underreported in our schools, prisons, military, and between intimates in families.  Thus, at once, the U.S. criminal regulatory regime constructs a peculiarly overbroad category of feared persons, compels a misguided approach to this population, and neglects the most prevalent forms of vulnerability to sexual predation and assault.

This essay argues that an alternative social institutional reform framework could address pervasive forms of sexual harm more meaningfully and with fewer problems than attend the prevailing criminal regulatory framework.  This alternative framework would depart in large measure from purportedly preventive post-conviction criminal regulation, focusing instead on institutional, structural, and social dynamics that enable sexual violence and abuse.

December 19, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

New BJS data show continued (very) slow decline in correctional populations in US

This official press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which carries the heading "U.S. Correctional Population Declined By Less Than 1 Percent For The Second Consecutive Year," provides highlights from the latest official accounting of who is subject to criminal justice control in the United States. Here are some of the details:

The number of persons under adult correctional supervision fell by 41,500 persons during 2013, dropping to 6.89 million by yearend, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The decline in the correctional population (down 0.6 percent) was less than 1 percent for the second consecutive year.

By yearend 2013, the number of persons under adult correctional supervision was the smallest number observed since 2003. About 7 in 10 offenders under adult correctional supervision were supervised in the community on probation (3.91 million) or parole (853,200) at yearend 2013, compared to about 3 in 10 incarcerated in state and federal prisons (1.57 million) or local jails (731,200).

The entire drop in the correctional population during 2013 was due to a decline in the number of probationers (down 32,100) and persons held in local jails (down 13,300). The parole population (up 2,100) and prison population (up 4,300) increased, partially offsetting the overall decline in the total correctional population.

While the U.S prison population increased during 2013, the number of inmates under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons decreased (down 0.9 percent or 1,900) for the first time since 1980. The growth in the U.S. prison population was attributed to the increase in the number of inmates under the jurisdiction of state prisons (up 0.5 percent or 6,300).

About 1 in 35 adults in the United States (or 2.8 percent of the adult resident population) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2013. This rate was unchanged from 2012, when it dropped to the lowest rate observed since 1997. About 1 in 51 adults was on probation or parole at yearend 2013, compared to 1 in 110 incarcerated in prisons or local jails....

In 2013, females accounted for almost 25 percent of the probation population, up from about 22 percent in 2000. They made up 14 percent of the jail population in 2013, up from about 11 percent in 2000. The percentage of females on parole or incarcerated in state or federal prisons remained unchanged between 2000 and 2013. Since 2010, the female jail population has been the fastest growing correctional population, increasing by an average annual rate of 3.4 percent.

The full report with all these data and a whole lot more it titled simply "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2013," is available at this link.

December 19, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Six Reasons the Death Penalty is Becoming More Expensive"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective piece from The Marshall Project whihc served as something of a companion piece to its effective coverage (noted here) of how localities struggle with the economic realities of pursuing capital cases.  Here are excerpts:

We know the basic reasons why death penalty cases are expensive: more lawyers, more experts, more time. Prosecutors and defense attorneys often spend more than a year preparing for death penalty trials. Every successful conviction is appealed to several state and federal courts, meaning the government pays for both prosecutors and defenders to pick over the trial transcript and for judges and clerks to spend hours reading appeals. While this is going on, it costs more to house prisoners on death row than in the general population....

But the death penalty is also growing more expensive with each passing year. A 2010 report prepared for the Judicial Conference of the United States found that between 1989 and 1997 the median cost of a federal death penalty case that went to trial was $269,139; between 1998 and 2004 it had grown to $620,932.

Nobody has methodically studied how costs have been growing in state death penalty cases, but in interviews with more than 30 prosecutors, defense attorneys and other experts the consensus was that costs are going up fast. Here are the main reasons they cited:

1. Attorney Pay...

2. Experts...

3. Unpredictability...

4. Mitigation...

5. Juries...

6. Housing...

A few recent and older related posts:

December 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nebraska and Oklahoma sue Colorado in US Supreme Court over marijuana legalization

As reported in this local article, "Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning filed a lawsuit Thursday with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that Colorado’s legalization of marijuana violates the U.S. Constitution."  Here is more on the latest fascinating development in the world of marijuana reform law and policy:

At a press conference Thursday, Bruning said he was being joined in the case by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "Federal law undisputedly prohibits the production and sale of marijuana," Bruning said. "Colorado has undermined the United States Constitution, and I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold our constitutional principles."

Bruning said he placed a courtesy call to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers before filing the lawsuit. Suthers said in a news release he was not “entirely surprised” to learn of the lawsuit. “We believe this suit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it in the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

Some Nebraska law enforcement officers undoubtedly will welcome Thursday’s action. Anticipating that the attorney general planned to announce a lawsuit, Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said Thursday he supports the move. "This stuff is illegal here, it’s coming here and it’s had an adverse effect on our citizens and way of life," Overman said. "Nebraska, from highest elected officials on down, should do something about it."...

He blamed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for not enforcing federal drug laws in Colorado. "I am adamantly against the spread of marijuana across our country," Bruning said. He said he talked recently with a father who said marijuana was a "gateway drug" for his teen.

Colorado’s legalization of pot use has had a significant impact on Nebraska law enforcement agencies. Many departments, particularly in western Nebraska counties along Interstate 80, have seen spikes in their marijuana-related arrests tied to legally purchased pot that transforms into contraband once it crosses the border. At the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, authorities regularly apprehend travelers coming from southeast Colorado with marijuana.

During a September hearing on the issue in Ogallala, Nebraska, a panel of lawmakers heard law enforcement authorities express concern about the flow of high-potency pot into Nebraska and increasing numbers of impaired drivers and possession by teens as young as 14. "Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost," Bruning said Thursday. "We can’t afford to divert resources to deal with Colorado’s problem."

Via the Denver Post, the 83-page SCOTUS filing can be found at this link.

Wowsa (and cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform)!

December 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

Call for Papers for 2015 Innocence Network Conference

I am happy to convey upon a kind request this Call for Papers that might be of interest to readers of this blog:

The Innocence Scholarship Committee of the Innocence Network is seeking high quality social science and legal scholarship for presentation at the 2015 Innocence Network Conference in Orlando, Florida on May 1-2, 2015.

Areas of research are open but should touch upon the multifaceted causes, implications, and/or remedies of wrongful conviction. International papers are welcome but must be submitted in English.  Please submit a title and paper proposal to the Innocence Scholarship Committee at this G-Mail account: innocencescholarship@gmail.com by February 13, 2015.  Paper proposals must be no more than 200 words.  Completed drafts must be submitted to the Committee by April 17, 2015.

The Innocence Scholarship Committee is actively seeking publication for those papers accepted for Conference presentations in a law review symposium edition. More information about that is forthcoming.

The Innocence Scholarship Committee is comprised of the following Members: Professor Aliza Kaplan, Oregon Innocence Project, Lewis & Clark School of Law, Portland, Oregon; Professor Valena Beety, West Virginia Innocence Project, West Virginia School of Law; and Dr. Robert Schehr, Arizona Innocence Project, Northern Arizona University.

December 18, 2014 in Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"End Solitary Confinement for Teenagers"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed authored by Ian Kysel. Here are excerpts:

Solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging for any inmate, but it is especially perverse when it is used to discipline children and teenagers.  At juvenile detention centers and adult prisons and jails across the country, minors are locked in isolated cells for 22 hours or more a day.  Solitary confinement is used to punish misbehavior, to protect vulnerable detainees or to isolate someone who may be violent or suicidal.  But this practice does more harm than good.  It should end.

A major study by the Department of Justice in 2003 showed that more than 15 percent of young people in juvenile facilities, some as young as 10, had been held in solitary.  My own research, for Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, suggested that the practice of putting teenagers in solitary was more widespread in adult jails and prisons.  A recent Justice Department investigation found that at any given time in 2013 as many as a quarter of adolescents held at New York City’s Rikers Island were in solitary confinement.  Dozens had been sentenced to more than three months in solitary.  Still others were held longer, for more than six months.

Only six states have laws on the books that prohibit certain forms of isolation in juvenile facilities.  No state — nor the federal government — has banned the solitary confinement of teens in adult jails and prisons....

A recent Justice Department review of suicides in juvenile facilities found that more than half of the minors who had killed themselves had done so in isolation.  And in adult jails, department data released this fall identified more than 40 teenagers who had committed suicide since 2000; the suicide rate for minors in adult prisons was twice as high as that for older inmates.  A recent study at Rikers Island found that adolescents there were significantly more likely to harm themselves....

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should immediately direct the Bureau of Prisons to outlaw the solitary confinement of juveniles.  The federal government already prohibits the detention of juveniles with adults in federal prisons (a rule that states should emulate).  Mr. Holder could also direct the bureau to develop new policies to strictly regulate any use of even short periods of isolation.

Mr. Holder could then direct the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to promote these policies as model practices, much like the national guidelines on education in juvenile facilities that Mr. Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last week....

That the practice [of solitary confinement] is widespread remains a disturbing indicator of how poorly we treat the hundreds of thousands of minors arrested each year in the United States. They are still maturing into adulthood. Solitary confinement can sabotage both their rehabilitation and their growth. It should be banned.

December 18, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

DPIC year-end report highlights "death penalty decline continues in 2014"

As detailed in this press release, the Death Penalty Information Center today released its high-profile annual report.  The full report is available at this link, and here are highlights drawn from the press release: 

With 35 executions this year, 2014 marks the fewest people put to death since 1994, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The 72 new death sentences in 2014 is the lowest number in the modern era of the death penalty, dating back to 1974. Executions and sentences have steadily decreased, as Americans have grown more skeptical of capital punishment. The states’ problems with lethal injections also contributed to the drop in executions this year.

Executions decreased 10% compared to 2013 — from 39 last year to 35 this year — continuing an overall decline since 1999, when there were 98 executions. The number of states carrying out executions — seven — was the lowest in 25 years. Just three states – Texas, Missouri, and Florida — accounted for 80% of the executions. For the first time in 17 years, Texas did not lead the country in executions, being tied with Missouri at 10.

Death sentences — a more current barometer than executions — have declined by 77% since 1996, when there were 315. There were 79 death sentences last year. This is the fourth year in a row that there have been fewer than 100 death sentences....

Seven people who had been on death row were exonerated in 2014, the most since 2009. Three men in Ohio were cleared of all charges 39 years after their convictions, the longest time of any death row exonerees. Two others in North Carolina were freed after 30 years in confinement. Since 1973, 150 people have been exonerated and freed from death row.

Individual state developments illustrate the growing isolation of death penalty use:

  • The number of executions has declined in 11 of the past 15 years. In 1999, 20 states carried out executions; in 2014, only 7 states did so.

  • For the seventh year in a row, Texas had fewer than a dozen death sentences, a sharp decline from 1999, when it had 48.

  • California (14) and Florida (11) provided 35% of the death sentences in the country.

  • Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that no executions would take place while he is governor, joining the governors of Oregon and Colorado in halting executions.

  • In California, a federal judge declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.

December 18, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

President Obama (aka clemency grinch) grants a few holiday pardons and commutations

GrinchFollowing the holiday script he first wrote with a few clemency grants last year the week before Christmas (as reported in this prior post), President Obama this afternoon granted 20 clemencies in the form of 8 commutations and 12 pardons.  This AP story provides the basics and some background:

President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short prison time for eight drug convicts as part of his new initiative to reduce harsh sentences under outdated guidelines, a step that could lead to a vast expansion of presidential clemency in his final two years in office.

The president also is pardoning 12 convicts for a variety of offenses.  But the commutations are particularly significant because they are the first issued under new guidelines announced earlier this year designed to cut costs by reducing the nation's bulging prison population and grant leniency to nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to double-digit terms....

The White House said the eight new commutations Obama granted were for prisoners who likely would receive a substantially lower sentence today and would have already served their time.  For example, they include Barbara Scrivner, who was sentenced to 30 years in 1995 when she was 27 years old for a minor role in her husband's meth ring. Obama ordered her sentence to expire June 12, while others will expire April 15.

Administration officials say they expect Obama to grant more clemency petitions in his final two years in office under the changed policy he ordered from the Justice Department. The White House said 6,561 people already have applied in the past year, compared to 2,370 the year before. "I think there is an awareness out there that this president is interested in granting clemency on these kinds of matters," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in an interview.

The clemency policy changes aren't limited to drug offenders, who comprise about half of the roughly 216,000 federal prisoners, but the criteria makes it clear they are the main target. To be eligible, inmates must have already been behind bars for at least 10 years, have a nonviolent history, have no major criminal convictions, have a good behavior record in prison, and be serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter than what they were given at the time....

In his first term, Obama commuted just one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people, causing prisoner advocates to accuse him of being too stingy with his power. Obama aides said it was because he wasn't receiving more positive recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney so he directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who in April announced the clemency policy changes, said the sentence commutations reflect a "commitment to bring fairness to our criminal justice system."

"While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders," he said in a statement....

The White House noted Obama now has commuted 18 sentences, compared to 11 under President George W. Bush and three in the first six years of the Clinton presidency. Clinton eventually commuted 61, most in a controversial action on his last day in office.

The full list of the lucky receipients of this act of presidential grace can be found here via the White House.  And this link provide the full text of Deputy AG Cole's statement about these clemency grants.  I expect the folks who follow the ins-and-outs of clemency even more closely than I do will have a lot to say in the days ahead about what might be special about the folks on this clemency list.

Though I do not want to criticize the President too much on a day in which he finally saw fit to make some minor use of his constitutional clemency authority, I will still think of him as a clemency grinch until he begins more regularly granting commutations to a whole lot more offenders still stuck serving severe (and now repealed) crack sentences.  There are, I believe, thousands of federal prisoners still serving time for crack offenses based on the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio, and there are surely many thousands more low-level drug offenders arguably just as deserving of clemency consideration.  President Obama would have to grant eight commutations every single day over the two years remaining in his presidency to even start to make a serious dent in federal prison population.

December 17, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Should ALL federal marijuana sentencings be postponed now that Cromnibus precludes DOJ from interfering with state medical marijuana laws?

Images (6)As reported in this post yesterday, an astute lawyer in California sought (and, I now know, obtained) a significant postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing based on a provision in H.R. 83, the 1700-page Cromnibus spending bill, which directs the US Department of Justice not to use any funds to interfere with state-legalized medical marijuana regimes.  Specifically, Section 538 of the Cromnibus states, in relevant part:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used ... to prevent such States [with current medical marijuana laws] from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

Though this provision (which was officially signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday) is rightly being hailed as historic, what exactly Section 538 of the Cromnibus means formally and functionally for the Department of Justice and federal marijuana prohibition is anything but obvious or clear.  For starters, this provision is a funding directive to DOJ, not a formal restriction on DOJ activities, and it is unclear how such a provision is to be administered or enforced.  Moreover, this provision plainly does not provide a formal right or even permission for individuals under federal law to be involved in the "use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  Indeed, given that federal law currently has marijuana listed as a Schedule I drug, the very use of the term "medical marijuana" in this Section 538 of the Cromnibus is somewhat oxymoronic as a new phrase in the federal legal nomenclature.

That all said, the enactment of formal federal law ordering that DOJ not use funds to prevent the implementation of state medical marijuana laws clearly means something significant not only in states that have medical marijuana laws but throughout the nation.  In particular, as the question in the title of this post is meant to connote, I think this congressional approval (of sorts) of state medical marijuana laws should have a tangible (and perhaps significant) impact on any and all federal marijuana sentencings scheduled for the weeks and months ahead.

The specific instructions of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) tells federal judges that they must consider at sentencing, inter alia, "the nature and circumstances of the offense" as well as the "need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense."  Even before the passage of Section 538 of the Cromnibus, I thought it was appropriate for a judge at a federal marijuana sentencing to consider based on these provisions a defendant's claim that he was in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  But DOJ in the past could respond by reasonably asserting that Congress would not want a federal judge for federal sentencing purposes to inquire into any claims of state-law compliance.  

Now that Section 538 of the Cromnibus is official federal law, I believe every federal judge at any future federal marijuana sentencings should feel duty-bound to examine the particulars of a defense claim of compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  In light of what Congress enacted, consideration of claimed compliance with state medical marijuana laws seems essential to "promote respect for the law" as well as to stake proper stock of "the nature and circumstances of the offense" and "just punishment for the offense."

Moreover, I think some viable sentencing arguments might now be made based on Section 538 on behalf of some federal marijuana defendants even in the 18 states that have not yet enacted medical marijuana reforms.  If a federal defendant can reasonably assert, even in a non-reform state, that he was (mostly? somewhat? a little?) involved in distribution of marijuana for medical purposes, he might point to 3553(a)(6) and claim that sentencing him hard for medical marijuana distribution in a non-reform state would create (unwarranted?) sentencing disparity when compared to sentences likely to be imposed for the same offense in reform-state jurisdictions.

Critically, I am not contending (yet) that Section 538 of the Cromnibus must or even should have a direct and substantial impact on federal marijuana sentencings in reform or non-reform states.  But I am contending that, thanks to Section 538 of the Cromnibus, there are now a lot more federal sentencing issues that need to be subject to a lot more thought before federal judges move ahead with the roughly 100 federal marijuana sentencings that take place throughout the US every week.

In sum, to answer my own question in the title of this post, I would say simple YES.

Some previous related posts:

December 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Detailed examination of how local costs may slowly kill the death penalty

The Marshall Project has this effective new piece on the modern realities of administering capital punishment. The piece is headlined "The Slow Death of the Death Penalty: The public supports it, but the costs are lethal." Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

While many prosecutors are still reluctant to admit that finances play a role in their decisions about the death penalty, some of them – especially in small, rural counties – have been increasingly frank in wondering whether capital punishment is worth the price to their communities. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.”

Some prosecutors are far more blunt, and even hyperbolic, as they lament the state of affairs. “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County in the Texas panhandle. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?”

Since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, the cost of carrying out a death penalty trial has risen steadily. Increasing legal protections for defendants have translated into more and more hours of preparatory work by both sides. Fees for court-appointed attorneys and expert witnesses have climbed. Where once psychiatrists considered an IQ test and a quick interview sufficient to establish the mental state of a defendant, now it is routine to obtain an entire mental health history. Lab tests have become more numerous and elaborate. Defense teams now routinely employ mitigation experts, who comb through a defendant’s life history for evidence that might sway a jury towards leniency at the sentencing phase. Capital defendants are automatically entitled to appeals, which often last for years. Throughout those years, the defendant lives on death row, which tends to cost more due to heightened security.

In states such as Texas, Arizona, and Washington, where county governments pay for both the prosecution and defense of capital defendants (nearly all of whom are indigent) when they go to trial, the pressure on local budgets is especially strong. To ease the fiscal burden, some states have formed agencies to handle the defense or prosecution of capital cases. Other states reimburse counties for the expenses of a trial.

But even with that help, county officials around the country have sometimes had to raise taxes and cut spending to pay for death penalty trials. District attorneys have taken note. Many remain reluctant to acknowledge how fiscal concerns affect their decisions — they don’t want to appear to be cheapening the lives of murder victims. But a few are surprisingly candid. Their statements suggest that money is more than ever part of the explanation for the steep decline in death-penalty cases over the past decade. That is particularly the case in Texas, where there are few political obstacles to carrying out executions.

In the six states that have abolished capital punishment over the past decade, Republican and Democratic officials have also emphasized the cost of the death penalty as a major rationale. Even in states that retain the punishment, cost has played a central role in the conversion narratives of conservative lawmakers, public officials, and others who question the death penalty as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The rising cost of capital trials disproportionately affects counties with small populations. While the number of death sentences in the United States has been dropping steadily since a peak in the mid-1990s, an overwhelming number of the cases still being filed come from urban counties. There, the tax bases are larger, and the impact of an expensive trial may be more easily absorbed. (Harris County, where Houston is located, has been responsible for more executions than Georgia and Alabama combined.) Texas counties with fewer than 300,000 residents sought the death penalty on average 15 times per year from 1992 to 1996. Between 2002 and 2005, the average was four.

Prosecutors don’t cite statistics when discussing the costs of the death penalty; they tell stories. In Texas, they point to Jasper County, near the Louisiana border, where in June 1998 three white supremacists killed a black man, James Byrd Jr., by chaining his ankles to the back of their pickup truck and dragging his body for more than three miles. The murder made international headlines and led to new state and federal hate crime legislation.

December 17, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Federal judge in sentencing proceeding(?!?!) declares Prez Obama's immigration order unconstitutional

As reported in this CNN piece, a federal district judge used a federal criminal case to render an opinion that President Obama's recent immigration execution action was unconstitutional. Here are the basic details of a peculiar decision:

A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Tuesday that President Barack Obama's move to halt deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants violates the Constitution -- but it's not clear that the ruling will have any immediate impact.

Pittsburgh-based U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab, a George W. Bush appointee, became the first judge to rule on the legality of Obama's executive overhaul of immigration rules when he issued his unusual opinion in a criminal case. The Justice Department shot back that the judge was "flatly wrong" and his ruling wouldn't halt the implementation of Obama's immigration policies.

The decision -- which came in a criminal case against Honduran immigrant Elionardo Juarez-Escobar, who'd been deported before, returned to the United States and faced charges of unlawful re-entry after a drunk driving arrest -- was unexpected, and is unrelated to the legal challenge dozens of states have launched against Obama's move.

Prosecutors in the case argued that Obama's immigration policies were only meant to apply to civil proceedings, and don't have any impact on criminal proceedings like what Juarez-Escobar faced. Still, Schwab said in his 38-page ruling that Juarez-Escobar could have benefited under Obama's action to halt deportations for some undocumented immigrants.

Obama's action violates the Constitution's separation of powers and its "take care clause," Schwab said. He wrote that Obama's action "goes beyond prosecutorial discretion because: (a) it provides for a systematic and rigid process by which a broad group of individuals will be treated differently than others based upon arbitrary classifications, rather than case-by-case examination; and (b) it allows undocumented immigrants, who fall within these broad categories, to obtain substantive rights."...

Schwab said Juarez-Escobar didn't fall within any of the priority categories Obama identified for deportation, so it's not clear that removing him from the country would be a priority -- potentially blurring the lines between civil and criminal proceedings. The Justice Department blasted the opinion, with a spokesperson saying it was "unfounded and the court had no basis to issue such an order."

The full 38-page opinion in this case is available at this link, and there are a number of interesting passages beyond the Court's constitutional analysis.  Of particular note, Judge Schwab discusses at some length the Supreme Court's Padilla ruling and its emphasis on the connections between criminal convictions and deportation consequences. 

Unsurprisingly, this ruling has already become the subject of some notable commentary.  Here is some of the early commentary:

December 16, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Split en banc First Circuit reverses judgment that sex-change operation was medically necessary for imprisoned murderer

Sex changeAs reported in this AP article, a "divided federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned a ruling ordering Massachusetts prison officials to provide taxpayer-funded sex-reassignment surgery for an inmate convicted of murder." Here are the basics:

Michelle Kosilek, born Robert Kosilek, is serving a life sentence for killing spouse Cheryl Kosilek in 1990.  Kosilek has waged a protracted legal battle for the surgery she says is necessary to relieve the mental anguish caused by gender-identity disorder.

In 2012, U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf became the first judge in the country to order sex-reassignment surgery as a remedy for an inmate's gender-identity disorder. Courts around the country have found that prisons must evaluate transgender inmates to determine their health care needs, but most have ordered hormone treatments and psychotherapy, not surgery.

Wolf's decision was upheld by a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but prison officials appealed and won a rehearing before the full appeals court.

In a 3-2 ruling Tuesday, the full 1st Circuit found that Kosilek failed to demonstrate that prison officials violated the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment by not providing the surgery.

The court noted that the state Department of Correction has provided treatment for Kosilek's gender-identity disorder, including female hormones, laser hair removal and psychotherapy. The court also noted the department's concerns about protecting Kosilek from sexual assaults if she completes her gender transition. She is currently housed in a male prison but hoped to be transferred to a female prison after the surgery.

"After carefully considering the community standard of medical care, the adequacy of the provided treatment, and the valid security concerns articulated by the DOC, we conclude that the district court erred and that the care provided to Kosilek by the DOC does not violate the Eighth Amendment," Judge Juan Torruella wrote for the majority.

Two judges disagreed with the majority. In a sharply worded dissenting opinion, Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson suggested that Kosilek would not have had to fight a long battle for constitutionally adequate medical care if she was not seeking "a treatment that many see as strange or immoral."

"Prejudice and fear of the unfamiliar have undoubtedly played a role in this matter's protraction," Thompson wrote.

The full 100+ page ruling is available at this link, and the majority opinion gets started this way:

This case involves important issues that arise under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  We are asked to determine whether the district court erred in concluding that the Massachusetts Department of Correction ("DOC") has violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment by providing allegedly inadequate medical care to prisoner Michelle Kosilek ("Kosilek").  More precisely, we are faced with the question whether the DOC's choice of a particular medical treatment is constitutionally inadequate, such that the district court acts within its power to issue an injunction requiring provision of an alternative treatment -- a treatment which would give rise to new concerns related to safety and prison security.

After carefully considering the community standard of medical care, the adequacy of the provided treatment, and the valid security concerns articulated by the DOC, we conclude that the district court erred and that the care provided to Kosilek by the DOC does not violate the Eighth Amendment.  We therefore reverse the district court's grant of injunctive relief, and we remand with instructions to dismiss the case.

Prior related post:

December 16, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws

California Attorney Ronald Richards today sent me a copy of a fascinating emergency motion he filed this week that seeks a postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing today. Here are excerpts from the four-page memorandum in support of the motion (which can be downloaded below) which highlights why I find it fascinating:

Rarely in any counsel’s career has he or she had to file an emergency motion.  However, in the world of marijuana laws, the landscape keeps changing; this time, on a historic level. On Saturday night, the United States Senate voted to approve H.R. 83.  This is a 1696 page spending bill.  In the bill, section 538 forbids the use of money by the Department of Justice for interfering with State laws that allow cultivation of marijuana....

In this case, if the Department of Justice is mandated to not spend any money on interfering with lawful marijuana cultivations implementing state law, the raids, the seizures, and the federal prosecution will come to a halt in California.  In addition, if the scheduling is attacked by the litigation in the Eastern District and changed, there are just too many signals that the 77 years of marijuana prohibition may be coming to an end.  At least, there is not a direct policy mandate from Congress.  It is no different than a highway withholding funding to keep speeds under 80 MPH or at 55 MPH during the energy crisis....

If this bill is signed by the President, which all indications are that he will sign it or the government will shut down, it will become law and policy.  The Department of Justice could not in either the spirit or the letter of the law allocate any further staff, investigation, or budget to continue to prosecute this case.  Furthermore, all future prosecutions of legal California cultivators would cease to exist....

Based upon the historic passage by the House and the Senate of H.R. 83, the defendant requests a 90 day adjournment of his sentence.  If the bill becomes law, he will move to withdraw his plea or file a stipulation to that effect with the government.  It would be unfair for him to be burdened with a felony conviction and incarceration when in just two weeks, all the current cultivators in this State would enjoy the new found relief provided by the Congressional mandate.

Download Motion to postpone federal MJ sentencing in California

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Survey: Teen marijuana use declines even as states legalize"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new USA Today article reporting on new data that seems likely to be trumpted by those advocating for continued reform of marijuana laws.  Here are the basics:

Marijuana use among teens declined this year even as two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized the drug for recreational use, a national survey released Tuesday found. University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study, now in its 40th year, surveys 40,000 to 50,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade in schools nationwide about their use of alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and cigarettes.

"There is a lot of good news in this year's results, bu the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away," Lloyd Johnston, the study's principal investigator, said.

After five years of increases, marijuana use in the past year by students in all three grades declined slightly, from 26% in 2013 to 24% in 2014. Students in the two lower grades reported that marijuana is less available than it once was, the survey found. Among high school seniors, one in 17, or 5.8%, say they use marijuana almost daily this year, down from 6.5% in 2013.

Synthetic marijuana, chemical concoctions meant to simulate a marijuana high and sold at convenience stores and gas stations, have also fallen out of favor. In 2011, when the survey first asked about the drugs, known as K2 and Spice, 11% of 12th graders said they had used the drugs in the past year. In 2014, that number had dropped to 6%. "Efforts at the federal and state levels to close down the sale of these substances may be having an effect," Johnston said.

Abuse of all prescription drugs, including narcotic painkillers, sedatives and amphetamines, declined from 16% in 2013 to 14% in 2014 among 12th graders, the survey found. Narcotic painkiller use, in decline since 2009, dropped again from 7% in 2013 to 6% in 2014. Heroin use, which has grown among adult populations, remained stable for teens.

Teens considered narcotic pain relievers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, safer than illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine, because they are prescribed by doctors, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said. "There's a very strong and aggressive campaign about educating the public on the risk of opioid medications as it relates to overdoses and deaths," Volkow said. "That has made teenagers aware that they are not so safe as they thought they were."

Teen use of both alcohol and cigarettes dropped this year to their lowest points since the study began in 1975, the survey found. Teens may be trading conventional cigarettes for e-cigarettes. In 2014, more teens used e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco cigarettes or any other tobacco product, the study found. "E-cigarettes have made rapid inroads into the lives of American adolescents," Richard Miech, a senior investigator of the study, said....

Alcohol use and binge drinking peaked in 1997, when 61% of the students surveyed said they had drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months. In 2014, 41% reported alcohol use in the previous year, a drop from 43% in 2013, the survey found. Since the 1997 peak, "there has been a fairly steady downward march in alcohol use among adolescents," Johnston said....

"Even though the indicators are very good news, at the same time we cannot become complacent," Volkow said. "This is a stage where their brains are most vulnerable. We need to continue our prevention efforts."

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Notable NPR coverage of the "Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing"

Download (3)I am pleased and intrigued to see that National Public Radio seems to be starting a deep dive into some of the personal stories surrounding the debate over federal mandatory minimum.  This introduction, headlined "From Judges To Inmates, Finding The Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing," sets up the discussion this way:

This year, everyone from Attorney General Eric Holder to Tea Party Republicans in Congress has argued those stiff mandatory minimum prison sentences do more harm than good for thousands of drug offenders. Legislation to cut the tough-on-crime penalties has stalled on Capitol Hill, but it's likely to be reintroduced in 2015. Meanwhile, the White House and the Justice Department have taken the unprecedented step of asking for candidates who might win early release from prison through presidential pardons or commutations in the final years of the Obama presidency. That effort, known as Clemency Project 2014, is moving slowly.

Amid the backdrop of debate inside Washington and across the country, NPR decided to focus on the human toll of these mandatory prison sentences. We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly-released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

The series' first lengthy piece here is titled "Judge Regrets Harsh Human Toll Of Mandatory Minimum Sentences," has lots of good content and quotes from Judge John Gleeson and Professors Rachel Barkow and Bill Otis.

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Should problematic police be on a registry like sex offenders?

The provocative question in the title of this post is drawn from this provocative new commentary by Ed Krayewski at Reason titled "Time for a Police Offenders Registry." Here are excerpts:

There's a moral obligation to keep bad cops off the streets.  A job with a police department is not a right and shouldn't be treated like one. Police unions that push for permissive rules that end up protecting bad cops pose a serious public safety threat. Nevertheless, dismantling them where they've taken root is a difficult prospect even in the long-term. There are other ways to keep bad cops off the streets. The federal government, and state governments, ought to create and encourage the use of a police offender registry list.  Such a list would register individuals who while employed as law enforcement officers were found unfit for duty or faced serious disciplinary issues they may have resigned to avoid. Just as any other component of comprehensive police reform, this won't eliminate excessive police violence, but it's a start.

When actually identified, a surprising (or not) number of officers involved in controversial, high-profile use of force incidents have previously disciplinary history.  Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City cop who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, had been previously accused, at least twice, of racially-motivated misconduct, including strip searching a man in the middle of the street and allegedly hitting his testicles.  The police union in New York City is among the strongest in the country.  When a rookie cop shot Akai Gurley in apparent panic last month, he didn't think twice to reportedly contact his union rep first. A man lay dying in a stairwell for no other reason that he startled a rookie, and the fact that the officer called his union representative before calling for assistance isn't shocking enough to lead to the officer's termination.  Even if it were, it would still be impossible to terminate the officer immediately.  While all this is happening, the state of New York is on the verge of placing even more of the disciplinary regime that applies to cops under the purview of the police unions.

But not everywhere is the situation as hopeless as in New York City.  In other parts of the country, cops can get fired relatively more easily.  But it doesn't stop them from finding jobs elsewhere.  Richard Combs, who was the sheriff and only cop in Eutawville, South Carolina, is now facing a murder charge for shooting a resident after an argument at Town Hall, but Combs had been previously terminated from the county sheriff's office for unspecified "unsatisfactory performance."  In Cleveland, Ohio, the cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, mistaking the boy's toy gun for a real one, had been previously found too emotionally unstable and unfit to carry a firearm for law enforcement.  In Georgia, the cop who shot and killed 17-year-old Christopher Roupe after the teen opened the door to his home holding a Wii controller, had been previously fired for multiple disciplinary problems including shooting at an unarmed person....

This is just a sampling of stories that received enough local attention to gain some prominence.  The situation is unconscionable.  Police found unfit for duty in one jurisdiction shouldn't be employed in another.  Cops who resign to avoid disciplinary charges shouldn't slither their way into another department.  Cops who cost taxpayers millions in lawsuit settlements shouldn't be able to expose taxpayers in other places to the same risk....

State governments, and the federal government, can help.  Sex offender registries, which in some jurisdictions can lead to 19-year-olds who receive sexts from their 17-year-old friends being branded sexual predators for life, are an odious thing that makes a mockery of due process and the idea of the penal system as rehabilitation.  But for some of the same reasons they would work to police the privilege of employment in law enforcement. Constitutionally, the federal government could not mandate states use its police offender registry list or operate their own.  Yet because many of the most troublesome police departments (those in big cities and those in the sticks) also rely most on federal assistance in one way or another, the feds could induce compliance by tying it to such assistance.  The federal government has done this before, though usually to push states to impose certain laws on its residents, not to protect residents from abusive government employees. Such a list wouldn't be a comprehensive solution to excessive police violence, but it's an important part, one that could work to lower the number of bad cops operating on the streets and begin to rebuild trust between police and the communities they're supposed to serve. 

December 16, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

"Why Plea Bargains are Not Confessions"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper by Brandon Garrett now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Is a plea bargain a type of confession? Plea-bargaining is often justified as at its core a process involving in-court confession. The U.S. Supreme Court’s early decisions approved plea bargains as something “more than a confession which admits that the accused did various acts.”

I argue in this Article that plea bargains are not confessions — they do not even typically involve detailed admissions of guilt. The defendant generally admits to acts satisfying elements of the crime — a legally sufficient admission to be sure, but often not under oath, and often not supported by an extensive factual record. Because plea bargains typically contain only formulaic admissions, they have limited preclusive impact in future cases. The modern trend is to find issues not precluded by a guilty plea, except perhaps as to elements of the charged offense. The problem with the lack of adjudicated facts arises when other actors later seek to attach collateral consequences on that conviction.

More careful development of the factual record could help to prevent at least some guilty pleas by innocent defendants, but also important, it could produce reforms to more narrowly target the collateral consequences that now attach to entire categories of convictions. That is why I view it as particularly important to understand precisely why plea bargains are not “more than” and are in fact much less than confessions.

December 16, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, December 15, 2014

NJ Supreme Court clarifies legitimacy and importance of considering post-offense conduct at sentencing

This local article, headlined "Court: ‘Post-offense conduct’ must be gauged at sentencing," provides an effective summary of a notable New Jersey Supreme Court ruling today. Here is the start of the article:

A man who pleaded guilty to a drug offense was entitled to have the positive changes he made in his life between the time of his plea and sentencing considered by the judge determining punishment, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The state’s highest court ruled that sentencing judges must consider relevant, post-offense conduct when they weigh aggravating and mitigating factors during their sentencing analysis. In the Morris County case involving Joseph M. Jaffe, now 42, and last of Brick, the sentencing judge told his lawyer in 2012 that New Jersey law precluded him from considering Jaffe’s conduct in the year-long span between his guilty plea in August 2011 and sentencing in August 2012.

“In conclusion, the trial court should view a defendant as he or she stands before the court on the day of sentencing,” the Supreme Court said in its opinion, released Monday. “This means evidence of post-offense conduct, rehabilitation or otherwise, must be considered in assessing the applicability of, and weight to be given to aggravating and mitigating factors,” the court said.

The full unanimous opinion in New Jersey v. Jaffe, No. A-12-13 (N.J. Dec. 15, 2014), is available at this link.  Here is how the opinion gets started:

Defendant Joseph M. Jaffe received a three-year state prison sentence almost a year after pleading guilty to an accusation charging him with third-degree conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute.  At sentencing, defense-counsel asked the court to consider defendant’s rehabilitative efforts since he was arrested and charged. The trial court declined to weigh such evidence in assessing mitigating factors, concluding that applicable law did not allow him to consider “post[-]offense conduct.” In light of our recent holding in State v. Randolph, 210 N.J. 330 (2012), that a defendant should be assessed as he stands before the court on the day of sentencing, we conclude that the sentencing court must consider a defendant’s relevant post-offense conduct in weighing aggravating and mitigating factors.

A judge’s sentencing analysis is a fact-sensitive inquiry, which must be based on consideration of all the competent and credible evidence raised by the parties at sentencing.  Because we decide here that the trial court must consider at sentencing evidence of a defendant’s post-offense conduct, we are compelled to remand for resentencing to ensure consideration of all of the facts relevant to the applicable aggravating and mitigating factors.

December 15, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Police prevail 8-1 in first notable criminal justice merits ruling of SCOTUS term

The Supreme Court completed its last bit of formal action for the year this morning with an orders list and a few opinions.  One opinion is a bit of a holiday gift for criminal justice fans: a relatively short ruling in Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13–604 (S. Ct. Dec. 15, 2014) (available here), concerning Fourth Amendment application.  Here is the alignment of the Justices and the start of the majority opinion:

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Under this standard, a search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake.  An officer might, for example, stop a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat.  The driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.

But what if the police officer’s reasonable mistake is not one of fact but of law?  In this case, an officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a court later determined that a single working brake light was all the law required.  The question presented is whether such a mistake of law can nonetheless give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  We hold that it can.  Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable, the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.

Obviously, Heien is not a sentencing case or even an issue that I could see readily having some sentencing echoes.  But the alignment of the Justices on this matter might lead some to identify additional tea leaves to read about the various criminal justice perspectives embraced by various members of the Roberts Court.

December 15, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)