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Supreme Court Recap - 2016 Term

Welcome to my annual recap of SCOTUS criminal cases from the past term.  The link in the case names is to the SCOTUSblog site, where you can access their analysis, as well as the docket, which has further links to the briefs were filed in the case.  I'll give a brief synopsis of the case, and links to the actual opinion and the blog posts where I discussed the case.  

One note:  this doesn't include all the criminal cases, only those which I think will have interest to the people who read this blog.

Beckles v. U.S. - Two years ago, in Johnson v. U.S., the Court held that the "residual clause" of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which defined what was a prior conviction of crime of violence under the Act, was void for vagueness.  The Sentencing Guidelines contained the exact same language for defining a crime of violence for purposes of the Career Offender designation.  The Sentencing Commission has removed that definition, but Beckles concerns whether that change should be applied retroactively.  The Court held it didn't need to be; since the Sentencing Guidelines are only advisory, they are immune from due process vagueness challenges.  (Opinion here.)

Bosse v. Oklahoma - At the penalty phase in Bosse's capital trial, the victim's family members were permitted to give the jury their opinion of what should happen to Bosse.  In one previous decision, SCOTUS had held that victim evidence was barred if it does not relate to the circumstances of the crime, but subsequently ruled that evidence of the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the death to family members was allowed.  The Oklahoma Supreme Court determined that the latter decision overruled the former decision, but SCOTUS held, "Hey, guys, we get to decide which of our opinions are overruled, not you."  Well, not in those words, but pretty close. (Opinion here, discussion here.)

Bravo-Fernandez v. U.S. - Bravo-Fernandez was tried for bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery, and traveling in furtherance of bribery; he was convicted of the first, and acquitted of the latter two.  His conviction was vacated on appeal, and sent back for retrial.  He argued that the acquittals barred his retrial on the "issue preclusion" theory of Ashe v. Swenson.  Court essentially holds that issue preclusion does not apply where the verdicts are simply inconsistent, since that can result from jury compromise or leniency.  (Opinion here.)

Buck v. Davis - Psychologist testified at Buck's capital trial that black people were more dangerous.  It was the defense attorney who called the psychologist to the stand.  This was wrong on so many levels, but opinion deals mainly with standard for certificate of appealability in habeas cases.  But Court did hold that Buck was deprived of effective assistance of counsel.  Ya think?  (Opinion here, discussion here.)

Davila v. Davis - Habeas relief requires that the defendant have exhausted his state remedies.  What if he failed to exhaust his state remedies because of the ineffectiveness of his appellate counsel?  Court had held before that habeas claim was not defaulted if ineffective assistance of appellate counsel was in failing to raise issue of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.  Here, Court holds that claim is defaulted if counsel in post-conviction proceeding failed to raise issue of ineffective assistance of counsel in not presenting an issue which was preserved at the trial court (in this case, jury instruction that was properly objected to).  Theoretically, somewhere in the universe there is a planet where this makes sense.  (Opinion here.)

Dean v. U.S. - Dean was convicted of numerous robbery and firearm counts, the latter of which required a 30-year prison sentence "in addition to the punishment provided" for the other convictions.  Dean argued that judge could impose a one-day sentence on the remaining counts, but held that law required him to "look at the underlying offenses separately."  Court holds that there's nothing in the statute which expressly requires the judge to do so; 30 years plus one day is just fine.  (Opinion here.) 

Honeycutt v. U.S. - A complicated fact pattern on forfeiture, but the Court essentially holds that co-defendants aren't subject to joint and several liability on forfeiture, especially where there's a disparity in the benefit each received from the crime. (Opinion here.)

Lee v. U.S. - Lee, a non-citizen, had been given bad advice on the effects of a conviction on his immigrant status, and tried to vacate his plea on that basis.  Courts below held that he couldn't show prejudice, because evidence against him was overwhelming and he wouldn't "rationally" have decided to go to trial.  Court reverses, finding that consequences of deportation were so severe that he could have reasonably decided to roll the dice at trial.  Might have some major significance in the plea-bargaining context.  (Opinion here, discussion here.)

McWilliams v. Dunn - Habeas relief requires a petitioner to show that the state court decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."  The Court holds here that Alabama's denial of funds for a mental health expert in McWilliams capital case met that standard.  But Court declined to hold that this meant that McWilliams was entitled to an expert "retained specifically for the defense team," as opposed to a "neutral expert available to both parties." (Opinion here.)

Nelson v. Colorado  - The Court struck down a Colorado provision which allowed the state to retain forfeited funds, even after the underlying convction was vacated, unless the defendant filed suit to recover it.  (Opinion here, discussion here.)

Packingham v. North Carolina - Court held that a North Carolina statute which prohibited sex offenders from accessing social media sites on the Internet violated the First Amendment.  (Opinion here, discussion here.)

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado - During jury deliberations, one juror made a racially-biased remark about Pena-Rodriguez.  Normally, the aliunde rule bars impeachment of a jury's verdict by other jurors.  The Court holds that this gives way when a juror makes a comment showing reliance on racial stereotypes or animus.  (Opinion here, discussion here.)

Rippo v. Baker - Rippo argued that he should get a new trial because his judge was under Federal investigation for taking bribes.  One of the people who the judge was accused of taking bribes from was a witness against Rippo.  This was a capital case.  For reasons known only to them and their god, the Nevada courts decided this was okay, because Rippo hadn't shown that the judge was actually biased against him.  The Court reverses, finding that the Nevada courts should have considered the question of whether, in light of all the circumstances, the "risk of bias was too high to be constitutionally tolerable."  I think that's a "yes."  (Opinion here, discussion here.)

Weaver v. Massachusetts - The trial court closed the courtroom during jury selection in Weaver's murder trial, without objection.  The issue was not raised on direct appeal, either, but as part of an ineffective assistance claim in post-conviction proceedings.  Closure of courtroom is structural error, which doesn't require showing of harm, but an IAC claim does require a showing that defendant was prejudiced by counsel's error.  The Court engages in a lengthy analysis of structural error, and finally decides that in the context of an IAC claim, Weaver does have to show either that there was a reasonable probability of a different outcome without the error, or that error resulted in fundamental fairness.  Weaver goes 0 for 2.  (Opinion here.)


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