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US Supreme Court Recent Criminal Law Issues


In its 2015-16 term, the United States Supreme Court (“USSC”) addressed several criminal law issues.

Capital sentencing:

In Hurst v. Florida, the USSC held Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme unconstitutional. Specifically, the USSC held that the sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment because it required the judge, not the jury, to make all critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. The Sixth Amendment requires the jury to make all critical findings to impose a sentence of death. Hurst v. Florida, No. 14-7505

In the second case, Williams v. Pennsylvania, the USSC held that Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated when a state supreme court justice refuses to recuse himself from a capital murder case in which he sat as the district attorney in. The USSC held that there was an impermissible risk of bias when a judge, who previously involved in the case as a prosecutor, fails to remove himself from such case and violates the Due Process clause.Williams v. Pennsylvania, 15-5040

The third case, Foster v. Chatman, involved a finding of race-based discrimination in voir dire. Specifically, the first five potential jurors names listed on the prosecutor list entitled “definite Nos” were all black. All five of the potential jurors were struck. Here, the USSC held that the evidence showed that the prosecution was never seriously considering allowing the prospective jurors to serve. The USSC harped on the fact that the white jurors, who were not struck, had the same characteristics the black jurors were allegedly struck for. Foster v. Chatman, No. 14-8349.

The fourth case involves a capitals defendant’s ineligibility for parole. Here, in Lynch v. Arizona, the Defendant was convicted of murder. Before the sentencing hearing, the State asked the judge to preclude the Defendant’s counsel from informing the jury that the only alternative sentence to death was life without parole. The trial court granted this motion. Further, the State had put the Defendant’s future dangerousness at issues in the capital sentencing trial. Therefore, since the State questioned the Defendant’s dangerousness, the USSC held that the Defendant had a right to bring his parole ineligibility to the jury’s attention.Lynch v. Arizona, No. 15- 8366.

In the final capital sentencing case, the USSC heard three consolidated cases. First, the USSC held that the jury does not have to instructed that mitigating circumstances must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, the USSC held that the Eighth Amendment does not require that a sentencing trial be separated from the conviction trial. Kansas v. Jonathon Carr,No. 14449; Kansas v. Reginald Carr, No. 14-450; Kansas v. Gleason, No. 14-452.

Search and seizure issues:

In Utah v. Strieff, the police received an anonymous tip of drug activity. After receiving the tip, the police observed the Defendant’s house and became suspicious of the amount of people seen coming and going. The police witnessed the Defendant leave his house and followed him. After detaining him in a nearby parking lot, the officer requested the Defendant’s identification and relied information to nearby dispatcher who informed the officer that the Defendant had an outstanding warrant for his arrest due to an unpaid traffic ticket. The Officer arrested the Defendant, and while he was searching him he discovered methamphetamine.

Here, the USSC held the evidence discovered, even though it was discovered from an unlawful detention, could be used against the defendant. The USSC emphasized that there was not flagrant police misconduct and that there was a valid, preexisting warrant, and untainted warrant for the Defendant’s arrest. Utah v. Strieff, No. 14-1373

Blood and breath test:

Here, the USSC held that while warrantless breath test incident to arrest are constitutional, warrantless blood test incident to arrest are not. The USSC drew a distinction between the fact warrantless blood tests are much more physically pervasive than the warrantless breath tests. Birchfield v. North Dakota, No. 14-1468.

Suppression of Evidence:

In Wearry v. Cain, the USSC addressed suppression of evidence. The USSC held that the prosecution cannot suppress evidence favorable to an accused where the evidence is material to guilt or punishment. Evidence is material when there is “any reasonable likelihood” that its presentation would influence the jury. Wearry v. Cain, No. 14-1008.

Conspiracy to commit extortion:

Next, the USSC addressed a conspiracy issue. Here, the officers were participating in a kick-back scheme where they would refer individuals with damaged cars to an automobile shop which in return they would receive payment for. The Defendant argued that one cannot be committed of extortion because he had not conspired with someone out of the conspiracy. However, the USSC disagreed stating one may be charged with conspiracy to commit extortion even though the ones being extorted are part of the extortion scheme. Ocasio v. United States, No. 14-361.

Right to Counsel:

Under federal law, a court is allowed to freeze a criminal Defendant’s assets when the Defendant is accused of violating federal banking or healthcare laws. However, the assets must be related to the crime being charged. Here, the Defendant was charged with various healthcare violations. The prosecution asked the trial court to preserve the $2 million in the Defendant’s bank account in order to pay restitution and court fees. However, the prosecution conceded that the money was unrelated to the charge and prevented the Defendant from hiring an attorney. The USSC held that the assets in question were untainted by the crime, which means they remain permanently in the lawful possession of the Defendant. Luis v. United States, No. 14-419.

Sex Offender Registry:

Here, the USSC held that a convicted sex offender is not required to notify the state under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”) when he or she moves outside of the United States jurisdiction. SORNA requires the sex offenders to notify the state if they move or relocate. However, the USSC interpreted the statute to not require registered sex offenders to notify the state if they move out of the United States. Nichols v. United States, No. 15-5238.

Speedy Trial:

The USSC addressed the right to a speedy trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Here, the USSC held that the right to a speedy trial does not apply to sentencing. Specifically, USSC stated that the right to speedy trial does not extend past the guilty verdict or guilty plea. Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-14.


First, the USSC addressed an issue that arose out of Miller v. Alabama, 132 SCt 2455 (2012), which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing schemes that require minors convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. However, the case failed to mention if Miller decision applied retroactively. Here, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the USSC held that the rule does apply retroactively. Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280.

Secondly, the USSC held that a minimum sentence for child pornography conviction is applicable if the defendant has previously been convicted of “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse.” Notably, the USSC stated that the convictions do not have to involve a minor. Lockhart v. United States, No. 14-8358.

Seventh Grader’s Constitutional Rights Were Violated When Subjected to a Strip Search in Front of Peers

Can you imagine sending you child to school and discovering that your child has been subjected to strip search in front of other students. Enraged would be an understatement. As ludicrous as that sounds, a thirteen-year-old student in the 7thgrade was compelled to do so.

In the case of D.H. v. Clayton County School District, et al., the Eleventh Circuit held that a principle who performed a strip search of a student in front of other students violated the student’s constitutional rights.

Here, D.H. was accused of having marijuana at the school. After being called the administration’s office and having his backpack searched, the principle asked D.H. to take off his shoes, empty his pockets, and take off his pants in front of other students and the principle.

After doing so, the principle then asked D.H. to take off his underwear in which D.H. asked to do so in the bathroom. The principle denied and made D.H. comply. No marijuana was found on D.H. Accordingly, D.H.’s mother filed suit against the principle and the school district alleging that the D.H. was deprived of his privacy rights and right to be free from unreasonable searches.

The principle filed a motion for summary judgement claiming he has official immunity. In turn, D.H. filed a motion for summary judgement. The district court granted the principle immunity and granted summary judgement in part to D.H., concluding that the principle had violated D.H’s constitutional rights. The principle filed for appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the principle ordering D.H. to strip fully naked in from of his peers was unconstitutionally excessive. The Eleventh Circuit placed emphasis on the fact that there were no exigency circumstances present that prevented this strip search from being conducted in a private place.

It’s important to remember that children have lesser rights in regard to searches being conducted at school. Since the school is charged with the care taking of your child and ensuring your child’s safety, they do not have to have probable cause or a search warrant to administer a search. However, the schools are still restricted by reasonable searches. For obvious reasons, a strip search conducted in front of multiple peers is not deemed a reasonable search.

If you are facing a federal criminal case, contact Joseph A. Ingram or Ingram Law LLC, at (205) 335-2640.. At Ingram Law LLC we handle federal criminal cases in any federal jurisdiction in the country.


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