US Supreme Court

Recent Opinions

     On June 29, 2015, the Supreme Court, in Glossip v. Gross, Case No. 14-7955, rejected a series of inmates’ Eighth Amendment challenges to the use of Midazolam in the three-drug protocol used for lethal injections.  Petitioners argued Midazolam could not ensure inmates that it would render them unable to feel pain associated with the second and third drugs, causing paralysis and cardiac arrest, respectively.  Petitioners argued alternative drugs, Thiopental and Pentobarbital, were available, and presented two failed executions where the state used Midazolam. 

     Justice Alito’s opinion rejected the inmates’ claims, stating that even though alternative drugs existed, these were not available to Oklahoma to purchase for lethal injections.  Further, Justice Alito stated the inmates failed to show the use of Midazolam is sure or likely to result in needless suffering by the inmate.  Finally, Justice Alito dispelled of the two failed executions petitioners cited by noting that twelve other executions using Midazolam went as planned.

      Justices Scalia and Thomas filed concurring opinions, joined by each other.  Justice Breyer filed a dissent, joined by Justice Ginsburg.  Justice Sotomayor penned the main dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. To here the audio interview with Dale A. Baich, Supervising Attorney, Capital Habeas Unit at FPD-AZ, please go to our audio library located on our home page.

   On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its order in the case Johnson v. United States, Case No. 13-7120, in which the Court stated the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague and violates a person’s due process rights provided by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The Court reasoned that the inquiry required by the residual clause denies defendants fair notice of applicable crimes and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges.  The Court stated that courts must use a “categorical approach” when deciding whether a prior offense is a violent felony.  Courts are to look only to what a person was convicted of, rather than the facts or circumstances surrounding the prior convictions.  Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.  Justices Kennedy and Thomas filed concurring opinions. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion.

   On June 22, 2015, the Supreme Court, in the case Kingsley v. Hendrickson, Case No. 14-6368, held that to provide an excessive force claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that officers' particular use of force was objectively unreasonable.  The detainee does not need to show that the officers were subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable.  The case was remanded to determine whether a jury instruction including a provision for the officers' reckless disregard of Kingsley's safety, which provided an additional requirement to be proved, constituted harmless or plain error.  The opinion was penned by Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  Justice Scalia dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas.  Justice Alito also filed a separate dissent.

     On June 22, 2015, the Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the case City Los Angeles v. Patel, Case No. 13-1175.  The case centers around a Los Angeles Municipal Code which requires hotel operators to keep records of their guest for 90 days.  These records are to be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection on demand.  The Court stated that this is facially unconstitutional as it fails to provide the hotel operators an opportunity for pre-compliance review.  The opinion was issued by Justice Sotomayor; Justice Scalia filed a dissent, which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined; and, Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Thomas joined.

     On June 1, 2015, the Supreme Court, in the case Elonis v. United States, Case No. 13-983, held the Third Circuit’s instruction, requiring only negligence with respect to the communication of a threat, is not sufficient to support a conviction under 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c). The opinion was issued by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.  Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part and Justice Thomas issued a dissenting opinion.

     On April 21, 2015, in the case of Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court held that police officers cannot prolong a traffic stop to conduct a dog-sniffing drug search. The opinion, issued by Judge Ginsburg (in which Justices Roberts, Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined; Justice Kennedy issued a dissenting opinion; Justice Thomas issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Alito and Kennedy joined (Justice Kennedy joined all but Part III); and Justice Alito issued a dissenting opinion), holds that without reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff violates a person’s Constitutional right against unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment. The Court held that a police officer who is conducting a traffic stop cannot hold a person any longer than what is needed to determine whether to issue a traffic ticket, checking the driver’s licenses, determining if the person has any outstanding warrants against them, and inspecting the vehicle’s registration and proof of insurance.  The opinion discusses Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005) in which the Court previously held that a dog sniff conducted during a lawful traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures.  In this case, however, the Court held that a person’s Fourth Amendment right is violated when police conduct a dog sniff after completion of a traffic stop.  Rodriguez v. United States, Case No. 13-9972

     On January 20, 2015, in the case of Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Alito struck down an Arkansas prison practice that prevented a prisoner of the Muslim faith to wear a beard.  In so holding, the Supreme Court reversed previous opinions by the magistrate judge, the district judge, and the court of appeals.  The Court’s opinion was based in part on its analysis of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.   Justice Ginsburg joined the opinion, and wrote a one-page concurrence in which she distinguished this case from the Court’s previously allowed exemptions in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. to accommodate a petitioner’s religious beliefs.  Justice Sotomayor, who joined Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence, also wrote a concurring opinion in which she noted the level of deference normally due prison officials.

      On June 25, 2014, in the case Riley v. California, Case No. 13-132, Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court in which Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.  Justice Alito delivered an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.  The Court held that the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement does not extend to searches of data stored on an arrestee’s cell phone.  Absent exigent circumstances, a warrant is required to search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone. The Court reasoned that the concerns underlying the search incident to arrest exception, officer safety and the need to preserve evidence, are not present with respect to searches for digital data stored on cell phones.  The Court also noted that cell phones often contain a great deal of personal information, and that cell phone searches implicate a greater expectation of privacy than the relatively less invasive warrantless search incident to arrest that the Court upheld in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973). Justice Alito wrote separately to argue that the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement is not based solely on officer safety and preservation of evidence concerns.  

       On May 27, 2014, in the case Hall v. Florida, Case No. 12-10882, Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.  Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion and Justices Roberts, Scalia and Thomas joined. The opinion stated that Florida's threshold requirement of an IQ of 70 or below in order for a defendant to present any additional information regarding intellectual disability evidence is unconstitutional.  The Court cited Florida's rule disregards established medical practices, and further, that Florida uses the test score as a fixed number, barring any additional consideration of other relevant evidence.  The Court cited to the Eighth Amendment which "reaffirms the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all person." The Court also referred to Roper v. Simmons which prohibits the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities.  The Court mentioned the standards set forth in Atkins v. Virginia which acknowledges the inherent error in IQ testing and further provides substantial guidance on the definition of intellectual disability.

      Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court on February 25, 2014, in Fernandez v. California, holding that police officers may search a jointly occupied premises if one of the occupants consents, and the other occupant objects to the search but is removed by police officers.  Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Breyer joined.  Justice Scalia and Thomas filed concurring opinions.  Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan joined.  In the dissent, Justice Ginsburg states that the Fourth Amendment instructs that warrants to search premises shall be issued by a neutral magistrate. The opinion issued by the Court tells police that they do not need to secure a warrant.  In her view, by suppressing the warrant requirement, “the Court shrinks to petite size our holding in Georgia v. Randolph, that “a physically present inhabitant’s express refusal of consent to a police search [of his home] is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant.” Fernandez v. California, Case No. 12-7822


Prior Supreme Court Case Opinions

     On June 3, 2013, with Justice Kennedy writing the opinion and Justices Roberts, Thomas, Breyer, and Alito joining, the Supreme Court, in Maryland v. King,  stated when officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold a suspect for a serious offense and bring him to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Maryland v. King, Case No 12-207

     With Justice Kennedy writing for the majority in the case of Bailey v. United States, the Supreme Court held that Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981), which categorically authorizes law enforcement officers “to detain the occupants of the premises while a proper search is conducted" without need for any level of suspicion, Muehler v. Mena, 544 U. S. 93 (2005), does not extend to the detention of a person who is not within the premises being searched or its "immediate vicinity."   As a result , the detention of an individual who had left the premises before the search began and was a mile away before police detained him was not lawful under Michigan v. Summers.    The Court added that "[i]n closer cases courts can consider a number of factors to determine whether an occupant was detained within the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched, including the lawful limits of the premises, whether the occupant was within the line of sight of his dwelling, the ease of reentry from the occupant’s location, and other relevant factors." Bailey v. United States, Case No. 11-770

      Though the Second Circuit's attempted extension of Michigan v. Summers is now off the table, the Court was careful to point out the alternative avenues for lawful detention: "If officers elect to defer the detention until the suspect or departing occupant leaves the immediate vicinity, the lawfulness of detention is controlled by other standards, including, of course, a brief stop for questioning based on reasonable suspicion under Terry or an arrest based on probable cause. A suspect's particular actions in leaving the scene, including whether he appears to be armed or fleeing with the evidence sought, and any information the officers acquire from those who are conducting the search, including information that incriminating evidence has been discovered, will bear, of course, on the lawfulness of a later stop or detention." Bailey v. United States, Case No 11-770

     In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Kagan in the case Florida v. Harris, the Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court's holding that, to demonstrate a drug detection dog's reliability, the state must produce the dog's training and certification records, along with a wide array of evidence relating to the dog's reliability.   Instead, the Court held, "[t]he question—similar to every inquiry into probable cause—is whether all the facts surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime. A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test."   This allows the state to introduce evidence of a dog's reliability and for the defendant to challenge that evidence, but does not "prescribe an inflexible set of evidentiary requirements."  The Court noted that the Solicitor General acknowledged at oral argument that evidence of a dog's (or handler's) history or performance in the field "may sometimes be relevant."    Florida v. Harris, Case No. 11-817

    Expanding upon its jurisprudence set down in Roper v. Simmons (2005) (holding that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death) and Graham v. Florida (2010) (holding that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes), the Supreme Court on June 25, 2012 held in a 5-4 ruling that state sentencing laws that mandatorily impose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juvenile offenders run afoul of the Eighth Amendment.  The holding came in the consolidated cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs.  Both cases involved a 14-year-old defendant who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  The Court’s opinion did not reach the question whether the Eighth Amendment forbids life without parole sentences for juveniles, but instead narrowly focused on those sentencing schemes which give the sentencing judge no discretion and mandatorily impose the sentence.   The majority opinion, written by Justice Kagan, was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kennedy.  The full text of the Court’s opinion in Miller v. Alabama as well as the earlier opinions in Roper v. Simmons and Graham v.Florida are set forth here.  Miller v. Alabama, Case No. 10-9646; Roper v. Simmons, Case No. 03-633; and Graham v. Florida, Case No. 08-7412.

     On June 18, 2012, in a set of lengthy opinions issued in the case of Williams v. Illinois, the Supreme Court upheld a state court judgment that allowed an expert to testify about a laboratory report as part of a rape trial. The expert's testimony concerned how she had matched the DNA profile produced by an outside laboratory to a profile the state laboratory had produced using a sample of the petitioner's blood. Despite an objection by the defense regarding a violation of the Confrontation Clause and Crawford v. Washington (2004), the Court upheld the state court's judgment to allow the testimony to stand. The plurality opinion was written by Justice Alito, and was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy and Breyer. Justice Breyer wrote a concurring opinion, and Justice Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment but offering a different analysis. Justice Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ginsburg, Scalia, and Sotomayor joined. The opinions, while containing different analyses of the Confrontation Clause, set forth much of the Court's jurisprudence relevant to a defendant's confrontation rights. Williams v. Illinois, Case No. 10-8505

     On June 21, 2012, the Supreme Court, in the jointly argued cases of Dorsey v. United States and Hill v. United States, held in a 5-4 decision that the mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine-related offenses set forth in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 apply to crimes committed before the Act's effective date of August 3, 2010 so long as the defendant is sentenced after that date.  Both cases came out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit where a number of important opinions on sentence reductions associated with the Act have originated.  Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court.  Justice Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion which the Chief Justice and Justices Alito and Thomas joined.  This ruling is important in that it applies significantly lower mandatory minimum sentences to crack cocaine trafficking crimes than those in effect prior to the Act.  To clarify, the Act contains the same mandatory minimum sentences as before, but they are associated with significantly larger quantities of crack cocaine.  The differences between mandatory minimum sentences applicable before August 3, 2010 and after that date could be very dramatic, even as much as the difference between a mandatory 20-year sentence and a mandatory life sentence.  It is important to note that this opinion only addresses individuals who were first sentenced on the underlying crack cocaine-related offense after August 3, 2010.  The consolidated cases did not address the situation of whether the Act's mandatory minimum sentences apply to individuals who committed their underlying crimes prior to August 3, 2010 and  who were sentenced prior to that date as well. Dorsey v. United States, Case No. 11-5683

     On May 21, 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to review a jurisdictional issue (standing) regarding the right of private citizens to challenge some of the changes made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during the last presidential administration.  The challenges concern the ability of the government to carry out electronic surveillance, and are based on Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The petition for certiorari review submitted by several government officials can be found here. Clapper v. Amnesty International, Case No. 11-1025 (Certiorari Petition)

On April 17, 2012, the Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Dorsey and United States v. Hill.  In both cases, the defendants committed crack cocaine trafficking violations prior to the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act (August 3, 2010) but were sentenced for that conduct after the new law’s effective date.  The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the defendants should be sentenced under the old law and guidelines, thus subjecting them to 10-year sentences which would have been lower under the new law.  The issue is whether the FSA applies (at least partially retroactively) to defendants who committed their crack-related crime before August 3, 2010 but were sentenced afterwards, or only to defendants who committed their crack-related crime after August 3, 2010.  The opinion in the case will likely give guidance on application of both the new statute and the new sentencing guidelines subsequently promulgated to reflect the new congressionally mandated lower sentencing ranges and lower mandatory minimums for crack-related offenses.  The transcript from the oral argument can be found here. Hill v. United States, Case No. 11-5721 (Transcript)

     On April 2, 2012, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington in which it examined the constitutional limitations on searches conducted by corrections officers of new inmates at a jail or prison. In Florence, the Court affirmed earlier case law in which it held that corrections officers are permitted to devise reasonable search policies to detect and deter the possession of contraband in correctional facilities. Absent “substantial evidence in the record to indicate that the officials have exaggerated their response to these considerations,” courts should ordinarily defer to the officers’ expert judgment in such matters. In so holding, the Court rejected Albert Florence’s proposal that new detainees not arrested for serious crimes or for offenses involving weapons or drugs be exempt from invasive searches unless they give officers a particular reason to suspect them of hiding contraband. The Court held that his proposal would be unworkable. The search conducted twice on Mr. Florence was associated with his arrest and subsequent detention for allegedly having failed to show up for a hearing involving non-payment of a court fine. The outstanding warrant was the basis of Mr. Florence’s arrest. The warrant, however, should have been removed, because Mr. Florence had properly paid the fine. The case before the Supreme Court was part of Mr. Florence’s federal lawsuit brought against various governmental entities and corrections officials for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, Case No. 10-945

     On March 21, 2012, the Supreme Court decided two cases in which it found, by a 5-4 vote, that the standards of ineffective assistance of counsel (set forth earlier in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)) apply to the plea bargaining stage of a case.  In so holding, the Court found that counsel was ineffective when in one case (Lafler v. Cooper), the defendant chose to reject a plea offer based on incorrect advice given by counsel about a legal rule in the case, went instead to trial and lost, and then received a significantly greater sentence; and in another case (Missouri v. Frye),  the defendant lost the opportunity to plead to a misdemeanor because counsel never shared with the defendant the plea offer before it lapsed, thereby leading the defendant to plead to a felony charge with a higher sentence.  In his dissent, Justice Scalie bemoaned that the Court’s opinions would create a “whole new field of constitutionalized criminal procedure: plea-bargaining law.”  Lafler v. Cooper, Case No. 10-209 and Missouri v. Frye, Case No. 10-44

     On February 21, 2012, the Supreme Court Howes v. Fields reversed the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit by holding that an interrogation of an inmate that lasted from five to seven hours, took place in a conference room within the confines of the prison, and concerned criminal activity outside of the prison was not in all instances a custodial interrogation requiring Miranda warnings.  In its holding, the Supreme Court made clear that it was rejecting a categorical rule that such interrogations are custodial per se. Howes v. Fields, Case No. 10-680

     On Monday, January 23, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in United States v. Jones that the installation of a GPS device on a vehicle was a search under the Fourth Amendment.  In this case, a search warrant was obtained, but law enforcement did not follow the deadline by which the device was to be installed (the court gave them 10 days to install it, but it was installed on the 11th day after the warrant was obtained) and did not follow the geographic restriction in the warrant (the device was to be installed in the District of Columbia, but it was installed in Maryland). Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the Court, but significant discussion has already occurred over the opinion written by Justice Alito concurring in the judgment.  There are numerous indications in both opinions that the broader area of new technology being used by law enforcement, particularly in searches, will be receiving renewed judicial attention in the near future. United States v. Jones, Case No. 10-1259

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For Additional US Supreme Court Case Information:  United States Supreme Court 2011 Term Opinions