As it does every year, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing cases on the first Monday in October. Back in the day, meaning the 1980s, the Supremes considered about a hundred and fifty cases a year. Currently, there are only fifty-two cases on the 2018-19 docket.
Many of them are technical cases that most lawyers do not even care about. But a few of them may significantly impact criminal defense matters in Cobb County.
Death Penalty/Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Only a few criminal cases involve capital punishment. But these decisions usually have a ripple effect. The last time the Supreme Court said the death penalty was excessive, many states commuted existing capital sentences to life without parole. If that happens again, the resultant prison overcrowding could affect early release laws.
The Justices just heard oral arguments in Bucklew v. Precythe. A Missouri capital defendant said that lethal injection would be cruel and unusual punishment. He claims he has a medical condition which “would likely cause him to hemorrhage during the execution, potentially choking on his own blood.”
This case looks a lot like 2015’s Glossip v. Gross. In that instance, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the use of a three-drug lethal injection cocktail that some said did not induce complete unconsciousness before death. In a vicious dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor compared the controversial process with “being burned at the stake.”
Discrimination During Jury Selection
Similar to the debate over capital punishment, this issue continues to linger. In 1986, the Supreme Court declared that race was not a valid reason to use peremptory strikes during jury selection. In most felonies, lawyers have six such strikes. 2016’s Foster v. Chapman, the Supreme Court made it easier for defense lawyers to challenge a prosecutor’s peremptory strikes. With Foster, there was not much evidence of racial discrimination. During jury selection, prosecutors labeled some jurors as “white” or “black” in their notes. Furthermore, during arguments, the prosecutor urged the jurors to send a message to those people in the projects. The Supreme Court concluded that was enough evidence of racial discrimination during jury selection.
In this term’s Flowers v. Mississippi, it’s likely that the Supreme Court may expand the doctrine further in a more defense-friendly matter. Mississippi prosecutors basically argued that it was simply a coincidence that they used five of their six peremptory strikes on black jurors. Given the recent ruling in Foster, the Supremes are unlikely to buy that excuse.
Separate Sovereignties Exception
Prior to Gamble v. United States, an Alabama court convicted Terance Martez Gamble of a firearms violation. Then, the U.S. Attorney brought similar federal charges. Mr. Gamble challenged the separate sovereignties exception to the Constitution’s double jeopardy provision. This clause prohibits the government from charging a defendant with the same crime twice.
The case sounds like a meaningless technicality. But it may be the most important criminal law case on the docket. Georgia, like most other jurisdictions, has a medical marijuana law. There’s talk of expanding the law even further, perhaps even to recreational use. But any marijuana possession is prohibited under federal law. Technically, the feds could prosecute a marijuana case, even a medical marijuana case, that’s legal under state law. If the separate sovereignties exception goes away, a big cloud over marijuana legalization will go away as well.
Death Penalty/Mental Capacity
As a general rule, it is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to kill defendants who lack the mental capacity to understand their crimes. Madison v. Alabama may expand this doctrine and inch the Court closer to outlawing capital punishment.
Vernon Madison went to death row in the 1980s. During the subsequent years, he suffered a series of severe strokes. He no longer has any memory of the crime he committed. He argues that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to execute him.
Criminal Convictions and Deportation
The Immigration and Naturalization Act gives federal authorities the power to detain noncitizens “when [they are] released” from state custody. In Nielsen v. Preap, ICE picked up and detained several individuals several years after their state prison sentences ended. They do not question the legality of the deportation proceedings, but they do say that ICE cannot hold them without bond.
How will the Supreme Court interpret the INA? If they interpret it narrowly, the decision could open the door for substantive challenges to the INA in future years.
In Timbs v. Indiana, the defendant was convicted of heroin trafficking, an offense which carries a maximum $10,000 fine. The state tried to take his Land Rover, which was worth about four times that amount. Prosecutors argued that the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines provision did not apply, because it had never been selectively incorporated via the Fourteenth Amendment.
This case sounds like another technicality. But it could significantly impact Georgia state crimes prosecutions. If the Supreme Court decides that the excessive fines provision applies to states, and the Justices will probably do so, it could affect everything from traffic ticket fines to motions to revoke probation based on unpaid fines.
Burden of Proof in Revocation Cases
In criminal trials, prosecutors must establish every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. But in probation or parole violation matters, prosecutors must normally only establish violations by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not).
But what if the alleged violation involves a separate offense? That’s the issue in United States v. Hammond. The defendant was on supervised release following a possession of pornography conviction. During a surprise inspection, authorities recovered several devices which once contained child pornography. The court found that, by a preponderance of the evidence, the defendant did in fact possess pornography during supervised release. But Mr. Hammond argues that prosecutors should have had to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
If the Supreme Court rules in Mr. Hammond’s favor, it could radically change post-conviction procedures in Georgia criminal cases. Technical violations, like failure to report, would probably stay under the existing preponderance of the evidence standard. But prosecutors might have to prove substantive violations, like a new offense, beyond a reasonable doubt. The change would make these motions much easier to defend.
Work with a Thorough Attorney
Criminal law constantly changes, and it’s important to keep track of these changes and understand how they affect your family. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Marietta, contact The Phillips Law Firm LLC. We routinely handle matters in Cobb County and nearby jurisdictions.