Friday, July 3, 2015

GateHouse: Supreme Court ends term with flurry of criminal justice decisions

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media 
July 2, 2015 
The U.S. Supreme Court was extremely busy this term, or so it seemed.  The court made big news with decisions upholding Obamacare and same-sex marriage.
However, this past month the court also unleashed a flurry of less high-profile decisions focusing on the rights of those accused or convicted of a crime. Those decisions dealt with the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Sixth Amendment, Eighth Amendment and mandatory minimum sentencing.
The case generating the most attention was out of Oklahoma. In that case the Supreme Court revisited the issue of lethal injection.
At the time of the first lethal injection decision in 2008, nearly every state was using a three drug lethal injection protocol that consisted of the same, or similar, substances.  Since the court’s 2008 decision drug manufacturers either stopped producing or refused to sell the drugs to corrections officials.  The decision was based, in part, on moral grounds and in part on public relations concerns.  The result was a shortage of execution drugs.
As a result, states began to change their protocols. Oklahoma went to a single drug protocol. Ohio went to a two drug protocol and then states began to substitute drugs. Midazolam became a part of the drug protocol in Ohio and Oklahoma and both states experienced “botched” executions in 2014.
This week the Supreme Court said that the condemned inmates failed to present a less painful alternative to carry out executions and therefore the use of midazolam was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
Also this term, a case out of Ohio made it easier for law enforcement to prosecute child abuse cases.  The case involved comments made by a 3-year-old boy to his preschool teacher about physical abuse at the hand of his mother’s boyfriend.
The child was unavailable to testify at trial so prosecutors used what the boy said as evidence to help convict the boyfriend. 
“The question in this case is whether the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause prohibited prosecutors from introducing those statements when the child was not available to be cross examined,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito. “Because neither the child nor his teachers had the primary purpose of assisting in [the boyfriend’s] prosecution, the child’s statements do not implicate the confrontation clause and therefore were admissible at trial.”
The Supreme Court also struck down a 1984 federal law that sets a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence for a third conviction of a "violent felony or serious drug offense." The law is the federal version of "three strikes" laws that impose long penalties for repeat offenders.
The law included what the Wall Street Journal called "a catchall provision that has bedeviled the courts: any crime that 'presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.'  Writing for the court's majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that "Nine years’ experience trying to derive meaning from the [law] convinces us that we have embarked upon a failed enterprise." 
 In another criminal justice decision, the high court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance enacted in 1899. The ordinance allowed police to search hotel registries without a warrant with the goal of cracking down on prostitution, gambling, and drug trafficking, particularly at low-cost hotels and motels, reported the Los Angeles Times. 
Hotel owners argued that the ordinance was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. The Supreme Court agreed.
Finally, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania man who posted several violent messages on Facebook and was convicted under a federal threat statute — the first time the court raised the implications of the First Amendment and social media, reported CNN.
The court said that it wasn't enough convict based solely on the idea that a reasonable person would regard a communication as a threat. "Our holding makes clear that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino. 
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