Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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In 1985, Alabama charged McWilliams with rape and murder, one month after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma. Finding McWilliams indigent, the court ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The state convened a commission, which concluded that McWilliams was competent and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the offense. A jury convicted McWilliams and recommended a death sentence. Before sentencing, defense counsel successfully requested neurological and neuropsychological testing. McWilliams was examined by a neuropsychologist employed by the state, who concluded that McWilliams was likely exaggerating his symptoms, but apparently had genuine neuropsychological problems. Counsel then received updated records from the commission and Department of Corrections mental health records. At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel unsuccessfully requested a continuance to evaluate the new material and assistance by someone with expertise in psychological matters. The court sentenced McWilliams to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's denial of habeas relief. The Alabama courts’ determination that McWilliams received all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. Ake requires the state to provide an indigent defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Even if Alabama met the examination requirement, it did not meet any of the other three. The Eleventh Circuit should determine on remand whether the error had the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief. View "McWilliams v. Dunn" on Justia Law

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Hutton accused Mitchell and Simmons of stealing a sewing machine in which he had hidden $750. On September 16, 1985, Hutton drove the two around, pointing a gun. Hutton recovered the machine. Simmons survived two gunshot wounds to the head. Mitchell was found dead. An Ohio jury convicted Hutton of aggravated murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping, finding that Hutton engaged in “a course of conduct involving the . . . attempt to kill two or more persons,” and that Hutton murdered Mitchell while “committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing immediately after . . . kidnapping” as “aggravating circumstances.” The court instructed the jury that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the state “prove[d] beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances, of which the Defendant was found guilty, outweigh[ed] the [mitigating factors].” The jury recommended death. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed that sentence. Hutton sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254, arguing that the court failed to tell jurors that they could consider only the aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase. Hutton had not objected to the instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal. The Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit erred in reviewing Hutton’s claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default. Assuming that the alleged error could provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death. Instead, it considered whether the alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict. It was not shown by clear and convincing evidence that no properly instructed reasonable juror would have concluded that the aggravating circumstances in Hutton’s case outweigh the mitigating circumstances. Ohio courts weighed those factors and concluded that the death penalty was justified. View "Jenkins v. Hutton" on Justia Law

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Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the government ordered the detention of hundreds of illegal aliens. Plaintiffs, subsequently removed from the U.S., filed a putative class action against Executive Officials and Wardens, seeking damages, alleging that harsh pretrial conditions were punitive and were based race, religion, or national origin and that the Wardens allowed guards to abuse them. They also cited 42 U.S.C. 1985(3), which forbids certain conspiracies to violate equal protection rights. The Supreme Court rejected all claims, reversing the Second Circuit. In 42 U.S.C. 1983, Congress provided a damages remedy for plaintiffs whose constitutional rights were violated by state officials. There was no corresponding remedy for constitutional violations by federal agents. In 1971, the Supreme Court recognized (in Bivens) an implied damages action for violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures by federal agents. The Court later allowed Bivens-type remedies in Fifth Amendment gender-discrimination and Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishments cases. Bivens will not be extended to a new context if there are “special factors counseling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress.” To avoid interference with sensitive Executive Branch functions or any inquiry into national-security issues, a Bivens remedy should not be extended to the claims concerning confinement conditions. With respect to the Wardens, Congress did not provide a damages remedy against federal jailers in the Prison Litigation Reform Act 15 years after the Court’s expressed caution about extending Bivens. Qualified immunity bars the claims under 42 U.S.C. 1985(3). Reasonable officials in defendants’ positions would not have known with sufficient certainty that section 1985(3) prohibited their joint consultations and the resulting policies. There is no clearly established law on the issue whether agents of the same executive department are distinct enough to “conspire” within the meaning of the statute. View "Ziglar v. Abbasi" on Justia Law

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North Carolina law made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 14–202.5(a), (e). The state has prosecuted over 1,000 people under that law. Petitioner was indicted after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive traffic court experience. State courts upheld the law. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media. Even if the statute is content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” While social media will be exploited by criminals and sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” The statute “enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens…. With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” The state did not establish that this sweeping law is necessary to keep convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. View "Packingham v. North Carolina" on Justia Law

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In 1999, LeBlanc, then age 16, raped a 62- year-old woman. In 2003, a state trial court sentenced him to life in prison. Virginia had abolished traditional “parole” for felony offenders and enacted its “geriatric release” program, which allows older inmates to receive conditional release under some circumstances. In 2010, the Supreme Court held, in Graham v. Florida, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole and that states must give defendants “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” LeBlanc sought to vacate his sentence in light of Graham. The state court denied the motion, citing the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, that Virginia’s geriatric release program satisfies Graham’s requirement of parole for juvenile offenders: “The regulations for conditional release under this statute provide that if the prisoner meets the qualifications for consideration contained in the statute, the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute.” LeBlanc filed a federal habeas petition, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s grant of relief. The Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of existing Supreme Court authority. View "Virginia v. LeBlanc" on Justia Law

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had information that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While others searched the main house, deputies searched the property. Unbeknownst to the deputies, Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived. Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the shack's door. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. The deputies shot the men multiple times. In a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the court awarded nominal damages on warrantless entry and knock-and-announce claims. The court found the use of force reasonable, but cited a Ninth Circuit rule, which makes an otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation. The Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim; that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law; and that the provocation rule applied. The Supreme Court vacated. There is a settled, exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment: “whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.” The provocation rule instructs courts to look back to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force, mistakenly and unnecessarily conflating distinct Fourth Amendment claims that should be analyzed separately. If plaintiffs cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not foreclose recovery for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry. View "County of Los Angeles v. Mendez" on Justia Law

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A city is an “aggrieved person,” authorized to bring suit under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), according to the Supreme Court. The City of Miami sued Bank of America and Wells Fargo, alleging violations of the FHA prohibition of racial discrimination in connection with real-estate transactions, 42 U.S.C. 3604(b), 3605(a). The city claimed that the banks intentionally targeted predatory practices at African-American and Latino neighborhoods and residents, lending to minority borrowers on worse terms than equally creditworthy nonminority borrowers and inducing defaults by failing to extend refinancing and loan modifications to minority borrowers on fair terms, resulting in a disproportionate number of foreclosures and vacancies, impairing municipal effort to assure racial integration, diminishing property-tax revenue, and increasing demand for police, fire, and other municipal services. The Court reasoned that those claims of financial injury are “arguably within the zone of interests” the FHA protects. In remanding the case, the Court stated that the Eleventh Circuit erred in concluding that the complaints met the FHA’s proximate-cause requirement based solely on a finding that the alleged financial injuries were foreseeable results of the banks’ misconduct. Foreseeability alone does not ensure the required close connection to the prohibited conduct. Proximate cause under the FHA requires “some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged,” considering the “nature of the statutory cause of action,” and an assessment “of what is administratively possible and convenient.” View "Bank of America Corp. v. Miami" on Justia Law

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Nelson, convicted of felonies and misdemeanors arising from the alleged abuse of her children, was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $8,192.50 in court costs, fees, and restitution. Nelson’s conviction was reversed; on retrial, she was acquitted. Madden was also convicted by a Colorado jury. The court imposed a prison sentence and ordered him to pay $4,413.00 in costs, fees, and restitution. Madden’s convictions were reversed and vacated; the state did not appeal or retry the case. The Colorado Department of Corrections withheld $702.10 from Nelson’s inmate account between her conviction and acquittal. Madden paid the state $1,977.75 after his conviction. Once their convictions were invalidated, they sought refunds. The Colorado Supreme Court reasoned that Colorado’s Exoneration Act provided the exclusive authority for refunds and that neither petitioner had filed a claim under that Act; the court also upheld the constitutionality of the Act, which permits Colorado to retain conviction-related assessments until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. The Supreme Court reversed. The Act’s scheme violates the guarantee of due process. Petitioners have an obvious interest in regaining the money. The state may not retain these funds simply because their convictions were in place when the funds were taken; once the convictions were erased, the presumption of innocence was restored. Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, guilty enough for monetary exactions. Colorado’s scheme creates an unacceptable risk of the erroneous deprivation of defendants’ property, conditioning refunds on proof of innocence by clear and convincing evidence, while defendants in petitioners’ position are presumed innocent. When the amount sought is not large, the cost of pursuing a claim under the Act would be prohibitive. Colorado has no equitable interest in withholding petitioners’ money. View "Nelson v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Moore was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for shooting a clerk during a robbery that occurred when Moore was 20 years old. A state habeas court determined that, under Supreme Court precedent, Moore was intellectually disabled and that his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The court consulted the 11th edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities clinical manual (AAIDD–11) and the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and followed the generally accepted intellectual-disability definition, considering: intellectual-functioning deficits, adaptive deficits, and the onset of these deficits while a minor. The court credited six IQ scores, the average of which (70.66) indicated mild intellectual disability. Based on testimony from mental-health professionals, the court found significant adaptive deficits in all three skill sets (conceptual, social, and practical). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) declined the recommendation, concluding that the habeas court should have used standards for assessing intellectual disability contained in AAMR–9 and its requirement that adaptive deficits be “related” to intellectual-functioning deficits. The Supreme Court vacated. While precedent leaves to the states “the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce” the restriction on executing the intellectually disabled, that discretion is not “unfettered,” and must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” When an IQ score is close to, but above, 70, courts must account for the “standard error of measurement.” The CCA overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths—living on the streets, mowing lawns, and playing pool for money—when the medical community focuses on adaptive deficits. The CCA stressed Moore’s improved behavior in prison; clinicians caution against reliance on adaptive strengths developed in controlled settings. The CCA concluded that Moore’s record of academic failure, with a history of childhood abuse and suffering, detracted from a determination that his intellectual and adaptive deficits were related; the medical community counts traumatic experiences as risk factors for intellectual disability. The CCA also departed from clinical practice by requiring Moore to show that his adaptive deficits were not related to “a personality disorder.” View "Moore v. Texas" on Justia Law

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During a traffic stop, officers searched Manuel and found a vitamin bottle containing pills. Suspecting the pills were illegal drugs, officers conducted a field test, which came back negative for any controlled substance. They arrested Manuel. At the police station, an evidence technician tested the pills and got a negative result, but claimed that one pill tested “positive for the probable presence of ecstasy.” An arresting officer reported that, based on his “training and experience,” he “knew the pills to be ecstasy.” Another officer charged Manuel with unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Relying exclusively on that complaint, a judge found probable cause to detain Manuel pending trial. The Illinois police laboratory tested the pills and reported that they contained no controlled substances. Manuel spent 48 days in pretrial detention. More than two years after his arrest, but less than two years after his case was dismissed, Manuel filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit against Joliet and the officers. The district court dismissed, holding that the two-year statute of limitations barred his unlawful arrest claim and that pretrial detention following the start of legal process could not give rise to a Fourth Amendment claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. Pretrial detention can violate the Fourth Amendment when it precedes or when it follows, the start of the legal process. The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from detaining a person absent probable cause. Where legal process has begun but has done nothing to satisfy the probable-cause requirement, it cannot extinguish a detainee’s Fourth Amendment claim. Because the judge’s determination of probable cause was based solely on fabricated evidence, it did not expunge Manuel’s Fourth Amendment claim. On remand, the Seventh Circuit should determine the claim’s accrual date, unless it finds that the city waived its timeliness argument. View "Manuel v. Joliet" on Justia Law