SCOTUS concluded its 2012 term last week, as usual holding
the big decisions -- on gay marriage, voting rights, and affirmative action -- for ast. One of those rulings, Descamps v. US, is big for those who handle Federal criminal cases. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a defendant who's convicted of a crime involving a firearm faces an additional minimum mandatory 15-year prison sentence if he's previously been convicted of three "violent" felonies. Descamps had been convicted of burglary in California. Normally, that would be an offense of violence under the ACCA, but California's statute was
unusual in that it didn't require unlawful entry; a shoplifter could be convicted of burglary. Descamps argued that since the California statute didn't meet the generic definition of burglary, it didn't qualify as a violent felony. The judge looked at the plea transcript, though, found that the prosecutor proffered that the crime "involved the breaking and entering of a grocery store," and held that this was sufficient to make the crime an offense of violence. The 9th Circuit affirmed, but in an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court reversed: since the California statute didn't require unlawful entry, it didn't qualify, and the judge couldn't remedy that by finding that in this particular instance unlawful entry had occurred. The decision has a good bit more significance than that, and in the next couple weeks I'll take a closer look at the case, and the ACCA. I'll also do my annual recap of the Supreme Court's criminal decisions this past term.
Down in Columbus, only one decision of note. State v. Steele presents a police interrogation gone way wrong. Steele, a police officer, had a hankering for a particular woman, and so went to her child's school, forced a confession from him that he'd been involved in a robbery, then arrested him and kept him detained for nine days. He invited the mother over to the apartment under the guise of talking about the son's case, and asked her to engage in sexual activities. Whoa, dude, next time use Match.com. This resulted in Steele's conviction of intimidation and abduction, and the upshot is (1) a police officer can be convicted of intimidation if he knowingly filed a false complaint to influence or intimidate a witness, and (2) he can be convicted of abduction if he "deprives a person of his or her liberty when a reasonable police officer would know that there is no probable cause supporting the detention, no matter how brief." That's the court's emphasis, and 6-1 decision takes pains to "stress that we are in no way attempting to tie the hands of police officers in their broad authority to arrest and detain suspects." Not to worry; Steele's conduct was so over the top that I don't see his case serving as a model for future prosecutions of police officers.
Several interesting decisions from the courts of appeals, and our new weekly feature for the Update: a lawyer commercial...
That rarest of events comes in State v. Brown, where the 9th District reverses an aggravated robbery conviction as against the manifest weight of the evidence. The decision is necessarily fact-intensive, but a couple of points. First, it demonstrates the difference between sufficiency of the evidence and manifest weight. The court found that a juror, construing the evidence most strongly in favor of the state, could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but its own review of the evidence showed that the trier of fact (this was a bench trial) lost her way in convicting Brown. It's an eminently defensible decision: an employee of the store, who was the only witness to the robbery, knew Brown, and didn't believe he was the robber. More interesting is the court's treatment of the polygraph test Brown took, with a stipulation that the results could be admitted. It showed deception, but the court held that the results "are only admissible to corroborate other evidence and to impeach the defendant." In other words, they can't be used as substantive evidence.
The defendant in State v. Willis will get another shot, too. He'd been convicted of a robbery, involving the kidnapping of woman and throwing her in trunk, driving across town, and leaving her there. The key evidence against Willis was two thumbprints found on the lid of the trunk, which matched up to him; the State's theory was that they got there when Willis closed the trunk. The defense tried to put on its investigator, who had located a car just like the victim's, and took pictures of a man of Willis' height reaching up to touch the open trunk lid of a car. The man couldn't do it, because the top of the lid at that point was 13' off the ground. The judge wouldn't allow the demonstration, but the 8th District says that this interfered with Willis' right to present a defense, and reverses and remands.
How far can a prosecutor go in closing argument? Not so far as repeatedly expressing an opinion of defendant's credibility or guilt, the 9th District holds in State v. Labriola... In State v. Armstrong, the police had obtained a search warrant in a homicide case allowing them to seize "any object or item that may contain biological evidence (blood/DNA), including but not limited to shoes or clothing." The 11th District decides this didn't allow the police to seize a notebook, in which the defendant had admitted to committing the murder... A warning in State v. Smith to trial counsel that they can't count on the appellate lawyer to clear up the allied offense issue; the 5th District holds that although counsel raised a merger argument at sentencing, he didn't put sufficient facts in the record to support it, and thus waived the issue...
Being there. Woody Allen famously observed that ninety percent of life is just showing up, but when you're showing up in a car from which drugs are being sold, it's not a positive thing. Nonetheless, in State v. Johnson, the 8th District vacates the defendant's conviction of drug trafficking for insufficient evidence. A controlled buy was made from the driver of a car, and a subsequent search of the driver found drugs, a gun, $24 in cash, and $20 in marked buy money. Johnson was sitting in the passenger seat, didn't do anything during the buy, and didn't have drugs or marked money on her. The only thing she did have was $466 in cash.