Articles Posted in United States Supreme Court

Today, in a 5-4 decision the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Maryland v. King. The ruling allows police to take a DNA sample from a suspect who has been arrested. Summarized, the decision written by Justice Kennedy holds that when the police make an arrest supported by probable cause and take the person to the station for detention the taking of a DNA sample with a buccal swab is a legitimate booking procedure and is not violative of the Fourth Amendment rights of the accused.

In King the Supreme Court articulated as facts the following: In 2003 there was a home invasion in Maryland during which a woman was Raped by the assailant. The victim was unable to identify the attacker and the police investigation was unsuccessful. Through the victim the perpetrator’s DNA was obtained. In 2009 the defendant was arrested for a Violent Crime. As part of the booking procedure, and pursuant to a Maryland DNA collection law, a DNA sample was taken. A national database, CODIS, matched the defendant’s DNA to the sample saved from the 2003 rape. The Maryland law successfully challenged by the defendant and the case found its way up the United States Supreme Court.

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Maryland v. King

Upholding the Maryland DNA collection law and overturning the Maryland Appeals Court decision the majority in King came to the following troubling conclusions: 1) accurate identification of the suspect is well served through this process, 2) this process reduces inordinate detention risks helping to ensure the safety of the facility staff, the detainee and other detainees at the facility, 3) DNA collection reduces the risk of flight and the subversion of the administration of justice, 4) DNA collection helps with a judge’s determination of bail and 5) the law serves to prevent the detention of innocent people being held for crimes that they did not commit.

The dissent in King was nothing less than scathing. It reasoned that identifying King was not an issue in this case. The Maryland statute permitting the DNA collection forbids testing the DNA sample until after the arraignment. The DNA sample was not matched until four months after the arrest. The Maryland statute provided two situations where the DNA could be tested. One to identify human remains and the other to identifying missing persons. Nothing in the statute permitted testing the DNA for any other purpose. Doing so according to the Maryland law constitutes a crime. The dissent went further stating that “law enforcement’s post-arrest use of fingerprints could not be more different from its post-arrest use of DNA”.

There are additional flaws to this decision not discussed in the dissent. Here is just one of them to think about. Through DNA testing it has been discovered that fifty percent of a person’s personality traits are imbedded in his or her genes. Taking DNA samples in accordance with the Maryland law will enable law enforcement to profile people and their families through these DNA test disclosures. It will not be long before prosecutors try to use this information in court in support of their prosecution.

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In Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime. In 2003 Graham was sixteen years old. He and some friends tried to rob a Jacksonville, Florida restaurant while masked. They were unsuccessful but in the course of the activity the restaurant manager suffered an injury that required stitches to his head. Graham was prosecuted as an adult. The statute under which he was prosecuted permitted a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Pursuant to a plea agreement Graham’s lawyer succeeded in having him placed on probation for three years. There was no adjudication of guilt at the time the plea agreement was accepted. Presumably, if Graham complied with the terms of probation he would not have a criminal record at the conclusion of the probationary period. Several months later Graham was alleged to have been involved in another crime. Accordingly, his probation officer sought to have him violated. A judge agreed that Graham was in violation of his probation. In accordance with that decision a finding of guilty entered on the 2003 case. The judge then sentenced Graham to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Reversing the Florida Court’s sentence the United States Supreme Court held that “Graham deserved to be separated from society for some time in order to prevent… an escalating pattern of criminal conduct,…but it does not follow that he would be a risk to society for the rest of his life.” A sentence of this length against a juvenile offender deprives him of the chance “to demonstrate growth and maturity”. In a somewhat cautious twist however the Supreme Court held that states to not have to guarantee “eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime”. The juvenile offender must however be given “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation”.

The Court noted that thirty seven states, the District of Columbia and a federal statute permit life sentences without the possibility for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Six states forbid any life sentence for juvenile offenders, Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Kansas, Kentucky and Texas. Ironically, each of those states with the exception of Alaska has a death penalty. Massachusetts allows for life without parole for juveniles found guilty of murder only.

In January of this year, in the case of Presley v. Georgia the United States Supreme Court ruled that included in the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial is the right to have the courtroom open during the jury selection process. Presley was tried and convicted of Cocaine Trafficking in Georgia. Before the impanelment process began an individual was observed sitting in the courtroom. The person was Presley’s uncle. Over objection the trial judge excluded the defendant’s uncle until after the jury had been chosen. After his conviction Presley appealed to the Georgia appellate courts. Both its Court of Appeals and its Supreme Court affirmed the verdicts. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the Georgia court rulings. In doing so the Supreme Court relied on the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Included in this right is the jury selection process. The Court in Presley recognized that in an earlier ruling under the First Amendment the public could not be excluded from the jury selection process.

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed this rule in Commonwealth v. Cohen. Both the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the United States Supreme Court have suggested that there may be situtations where closure is necessary. In those instances however the trial court must find that the party looking to close the courtroom have an overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced, the closure must be limited to that need and no more, the trial judge must consider reasonable alternatives and the trial court must make findings supporting the decision to close the courtroom.

Click here to read Presley v. Georgia.

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In Kennedy v. Louisiana, 128 S. Ct. 2641 (2008) the United States Supreme Court held that under the Eight Amendment to the United Stated Constitution the death penalty cannot be imposed where the crimes did not result in the death of the victim and where death was not an intended result of the crime. 

History of the case:

The defendant Patrick Kennedy was charged with the aggravated of his eight year old stepdaughter.  He was convicted.  The jury voted to sentence him to death under a Louisiana statute that permitted executions for raping a child under the age of twelve.  Kennedy appealed the conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  That court affirmed the conviction.  In doing so it held in part that fourteen other states authorize the death penalty in cases other than homicide cases and that this is a trend representing a “direction of change”. 

In Giles v. California, slip opinion June 25, 2008 the United States Supreme Court examined at the doctrine of forfeiture by wrondoing in the context of its decision in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).  Giles was convicted for the 1992 shooting and killing his girlfriend.  At trial, prosecutors successfully introduced statements made by the same victim to police concerning an earlier domestic violence incident involving the defendant.  California Evidence Code section 1370 permitted such evidence in situations where 1) the declarant was unavailable, 2) the statement described the infliction or the threat of physical injury on the declarant and 3) the statement was deemed trustworthy. 

The Supreme Court acknowledged two forms of testimonial statements that were admitted at common law even though they went unconfronted.  The first involved dying declarations.  The second involved situations where a witness was kept away by the defendant to eliminate that person’s testimony.  Under the latter exception courts held that a defendant should not benefit from such wrondoing and that “[t]he absence of a forfeiture rule covering this sort of conduct would create an intolerable incentive for defendants” to manipulate, bribe, itimidate, threaten or even kill witnesses against them.  The Court held that the California Evidence Code as interpreted by the California Supreme Court exceeded the context of deliberate witness tampering and in essence violated the tenets of Crawford v. Washington.  The conviction was reversed.

Massachusetts recognizes the forfeiture by wrongdoing law as well.  The seminal case is Commonwealth v. Edwards, 444 Mass. 526 (2005).  Witness tampering in Massachusetts is also a crime in and of itself.  It is defined by G.L. c. 268 sec. 13B.  A conviction of that statute carries a ten year state prison sentence. 

In Greenlaw v. United States ____ U.S. ____ (2008) decided on June 23, 2008, the United States Supreme Court overturned an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that increased a defendant’s sentence by fifteen years. 

The defendant was charged with various drug and firearm offenses.  The government alleged that he was a member of a gang that controlled crack sales using firearms as a means of deterring competition.  The defendant went to trial and was convicted on seven of the eight counts for which he was indicted.  He appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on grounds that his sentence was excessive.  The government did not appeal the sentence.  Nor for that matter did it file a cross-appeal.  Rather, it simply opposed the defendant’s appeal.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided on its own volition that the sentence was too low and it increased the sentence by fifteen years.  Greenlaw petitioned for certiorari and the Supreme Court heard the case.

The United States Supreme Court held that absent a government appeal or a cross appeal a court cannot on its own initiative increase a sentence.  The Court further stated that for appellate purposes, the parties frame the issues.  The function of the courts is one of a neutral arbiter of the issues raised by the parties.  This is known as the party presentation principle.  Any departures from this procedure have been justified usually in situations where a pro se litigant is being protected.  The Supreme Court continued that the plain error rule does not apply as an override to the cross-appeal requirement.