Spring 2006

Supreme Court Update

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several decisions and grants of certiorari of issues of importance to the Section.

On May 22, in Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart (No.05-502), the Court ruled (8-0) that, when a person has been injured or faces the clear threat of injury, the police may enter his/her home without a warrant. Four policemen, responding to a noise complaint, witnessed four adults and one minor engaging in a physical fight through the screen door of a private home and arrested them. On appeal, the Utah Supreme Court held that the evidence gained by entry into the house should be suppressed because the police did not initially enter the premises to offer assistance and because the situation in question did not necessitate the unwarranted intrusion. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, disagreed, holding that, while the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to search a person’s home, exceptions can and have been permitted when there is, as in this case, a pressing and immediate need for law enforcement.

On Apr. 17, in Gonzales v. Thomas (No. 05-552), the Court issued a per curium decision. Michelle Thomas and her immediate family applied for asylum, claiming fear of persecution in their native South Africa both because of their race and familial ties to “Boss Ronnie,” an allegedly infamous South African racist. Their claim was rejected by the immigration judge, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, taking the matter en banc, ruled that the family should be categorized as a “particular social group” and that, on these grounds, they had had legitimate reason to fear persecution in South Africa. Vacating the lower court’s decision, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the decision as to whether fear of persecution based on familial relationships can justify a claim for asylum must rest with federal immigration officials.

On Mar. 21, in United States v. Grubbs (No. 04-1414), the Court held (8-0) that an anticipatory warrant issued prior to the occurrence of a “triggering condition” is constitutional. Jeffery Grubbs ordered a video tape containing child pornography from an undercover U.S. postal inspector. An anticipatory warrant was issued with the “triggering condition” that it could not take effect until the evidence was delivered. When Grubbs was indicted by the Eastern District of California, he claimed that the warrant itself was invalid because it did not describe the “triggering condition.” His motion to suppress all evidence obtained from his home was denied. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, asserting that the failure to list a “triggering condition” was a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. Vacating this judgment, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the scope of the particularity requirement should not be expanded to cover “triggering conditions.”

On May 30, in Garcetti v. Ceballos (No. 04-473), the Court ruled (5-4) that statements made as a public employee are not protected by the First Amendment. Richard Ceballos, a supervising deputy district attorney, claimed that his employers violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by unfairly punishing him for observing that an affidavit used by police to obtain a search warrant was erroneous. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that because Ceballos’s observation concerned a matter of direct public interest, his words, despite his position as a public employee, should be protected. Speaking for the majority, however, Justice Kennedy opined that to withhold First Amendment protection from Ceballos is not a violation of his constitutional rights as a private citizen because his statement was made as a public employee acting in the line of public duty.

On Jun. 12, in House v. Bell (No. 04-8990), the Court held (6-2) that DNA evidence can be used to entitle an inmate to habeas review in federal court. Twenty years after Paul House was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Carolyn Muncey, testing revealed that DNA evidence found on the victim’s clothing belonged to her husband, not House. Small blood stains on House’s jeans may have spilled on the pants from vials of blood taken from Muncey during her autopsy. Justice Kennedy, in writing the majority opinion, said jurors could find reasonable doubt in light of this evidence and that it was enough to overcome the strict standards that must be met before prisoners are allowed to re-argue issues of innocence. The ABA filed a Section-cosponsored amicus brief in this case.

On June 13, in Hill v. McDonough (No. 05-8794), the Court unanimously ruled that inmate Clarence Hill is entitled to challenge Florida’s lethal injection method as a Section 1983 federal civil rights action. This reverses the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which ruled that Hill’s suit was the functional equivalent of a successive habeas petition, which is prohibited under existing law. The Court found that because the challenge is to the specific method of execution, not to the sentence itself, it can proceed under Section 1983. Some states have developed different procedures for administering the drugs, and as Justice Kennedy noted in his opinion, “Hill’s action if successful would not necessarily prevent the state from executing him by lethal injection.”

Also on the docket are the following cases:

Lopez v. Gonzales (No. 05-547). (Is an immigrant guilty of an “aggravated felony” when he/she has been convicted of a drug crime in state court that is a felony under the state’s law but a misdemeanor under federal law?)

Toldeo-Flores v. United States (No. 05-7664). (Is it unconstitutional for the Fifth Circuit to rule that an immigrant is guilty of an “aggravated felony” when he/she has been convicted of a drug crime in state court that is a felony under the state’s law but a misdemeanor under federal law?)

Cunningham v. California (No. 05-6551). (Does the California Determinate Sentencing Law violate the Sixth and Fourteenth amendments by allowing judges to alter sentencing on the basis of facts which have neither been found by the jury nor admitted by the defendant?)

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (No. 05-908). (Does the use of an appeal tie breaker in the public high school assignment plan crafted by Seattle School District Number 1 violate the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?)

Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (No. 05-915). (Does the student assignment plan of the Jefferson County Public Schools violate the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?)

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