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Criminal Cases in the Supreme Court Term -- Part 2

Continuing with the term summary (part 1 was yesterday), here are the federal criminal law cases, the prisoner rights cases, and a trio of summary error corrections.

Federal Criminal Law

Yates v. United States, February 25, 2015, 5-4 on the judgment, 4-1-4 on reasoning.  The Sarbanes-Oxley law, enacted to address financial fraud, prohibits among other things destroying a "tangible object" to obstruct an investigation.  Does that cover throwing fish overboard to obstruct a charge of a size limit violation?  No.  Justice Ginsburg wrote the plurality opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor.  Justice Alito wrote a concurrence, and cast the deciding vote on the judgment, with a different path to the same result.  Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas dissented from the Court's departure from what she sees as the plain language of the statute.

Henderson v. United States, May 18, 2015, 9-0.  If, in the course of a criminal case, the government gains control of the defendant's guns and upon conviction he can no longer possess them, can he direct their transfer to someone else?  Yes, so long as steps are taken to insure the transferee is not a straw man.  Justice Kagan wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.
Whitfield v. United States, January 13, 2015, 9-0.  The enhanced penalties in federal bank robbery law for a robber who "forces any person to accompany him" apply even to short movements, such as one room of a building to another.  Justice Scalia wrote the opinion.

McFadden v. United States, June 18, 2015, 9-0.  The Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 requires substances similar to those on the schedule I list to be treated as such if they are intended for human consumption.  The Controlled Substance Act makes it a crime to "knowingly" distribute a controlled substance.  The defendant's knowledge that the substance is controlled is an element the prosecution must prove.

Prisoner and Arrestee Suits

San Francisco v. Sheehan, May 18, 2015, 6-2-0.  The question on the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act to the arrest of a mentally ill person is dropped because S.F. argued one thing in its certiorari petition and something else in its merits brief.  The Court is not amused.  Officers have qualified immunity because the accommodation right claimed by the plaintiff was not clearly established.  Justice Alito wrote the opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor.  Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Kagan, is even less amused and would dump the whole case as a sanction for The City's bait and switch.  Justice Breyer is recused, presumably because his brother was the trial judge.

Coleman v. Tollefson, May 18, 2015, 9-0.  Some prison inmates are "frequent filers."  They sue over anything.  The Prison Litigation Reform Act has a "three strikes" provision that disqualifies them from waiver of filing fees after three suits have been thrown out as frivolous, etc.  Does a "strike" still "count" if an appeal is pending?  Yes.  Justice Breyer wrote the opinion.

Taylor v. Barkes, June 1, 2015, 9-0.  Per curiam opinion. No constitutional right of prisoners to a suicide prevention protocol has been clearly established so as to allow suing officials.

Summary Error Corrections

In the following cases, the lower court was so obviously wrong that none of the nine Supreme Court Justices thought it was right or even thought the case needed briefing and argument.  All three are habeas cases, so they could have gone in the Habeas Corpus section as well.

Lopez v. Smith, October 6, 2014, 9-0, per curiam.  State court holding on a claim that the prosecution switched theories was a reasonable application of existing Supreme Court precedent.  No, Ninth Circuit, as the Supreme Court has "emphasized, time and again," you can't throw out state court judgments for failing to follow your precedents.  They don't have to.

Glebe v. Frost, November 17, 2014, 9-0, per curiam.  State court ruling that limitation of the defense lawyer's summation was harmless error, not structural error, was reasonable.  Ninth Circuit once again substitutes its own view for the reasonable decision of the state court in violation of Congress's limit on its authority.

Woods v. Donald, March 30, 2015, 9-0, per curiam.   State court reasonably concluded that a lawyer's brief absence from a joint trial during testimony that did not affect his client was not automatically reversible ineffective assistance.

That's a wrap for the term.  The next one starts the First Monday in October.

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