Thursday, August 9, 2012

States Respond to the U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Juvenile Life Sentences

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Miller v. Alabama.  The Court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional.  The Court reasoned that “[w]hile a mandatory life sentence for adults does not violate the Eighth Amendment, such a sentence would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for children.”  Furthermore, the Court added  the punishment should be proportioned to the offense and the offender.  Miller is a victory for juvenile justice advocates, but the fight continues.  Miller abolishes mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences, but it still permits a judge to sentence a juvenile to life without parole.  It is time for the United States to completely abolish juvenile life without parole sentences.  The court’s focus for juvenile offenders should be rehabilitation.

More than half of the states are affected by the Court’s decision in Miller.  There are currently twenty-nine states that have mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, and there are approximately 2500 juveniles serving life without parole in the United States.
 States have promptly begun to respond to the Court’s decisions.  North Carolina, the first state to respond to the Court’s decision, has amended its sentencing laws to comply with Miller.  Pennsylvania, the state with the highest number of juveniles serving life without parole, has initiated legislative hearings to determine how to best comply with Miller.  Michigan, the state with the second highest number of juveniles serving life without parole, has also initiated legislative hearings to determine how to best comply with Miller.  

While some states are making prompt attempts to comply with the Court’s decision, Iowa found a way to evade compliance.  Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad commuted the life sentences for juveniles in his state to a number of years.  The governor changed the sentences from life without the possibility of parole to a sixty year minimum sentence before the juvenile is eligible for parole.  Iowa’s Constitution permits the governor to commute life sentences to a number of years; however, the question remains whether commuting juvenile life without parole sentences to a sixty year minimum sentence actually complies with Miller or whether the sentence in itself is unconstitutional for a juvenile after Miller.

Miller simply gives the judge discretion.  It allows the judge to consider mitigating factors for sentencing.  Mitigating factors are factors regarding the juvenile’s character or circumstances of the crime including but not limited to age, mental illness, and history of maltreatment.   After considering these factors, a judge can still sentence a juvenile to life without parole.  The actions of Iowa’s governor seem to suggest that he does not trust the state’s judges with this type of discretion.  In Miller, the Court pointed out that juveniles are immature, irresponsible, impetuous, reckless, and susceptible to influence and psychological damage.  Moreover, the Court pointed out that the crime should be proportioned to both the offender and the offense.  For the foregoing reasons, judges need discretion in juvenile sentencing.  If Governor Branstad trusts his state’s judges then he can trust that they will issue sentences that consider the offender’s mitigating circumstances as well as public safety and punishment for the crime.

Iowa’s new sentence for juveniles is arguably equivalent to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  The average life expectancy in the United States is seventy-eight years old.  Lifelong imprisonment would likely shorten the life expectancy age even more.  For a juvenile who is sentenced at the age of eighteen, he would not be eligible for parole until he is seventy-eight.  Iowa is essentially sentencing juveniles to spend the rest of their life in prison give or take a couple of years.  Iowa’s governor’s actions are completely contrary to the Court’s decision and rationale in Miller.

According to Amnesty International, the United States is believed to be the only country in the world to sentence its juveniles to life in prison without parole.  Although the Court’s decision in Miller is a step in the right direction, we must completely ban juvenile life without parole.  Juveniles have the capacity to change.  These are children, many whom have not had proper care, guidance, and supervision.  It is important that the Court stated the punishment must be proportioned to both the offender and the offense.  We cannot just look at the crime; we must look at the offender as well.  When we really look at the offender, we will see a hurt child. Many juvenile offenders have a history of maltreatment.  Maltreatment is certainly not an excuse to commit vicious crimes, but there is a correlation between maltreatment and juvenile criminal offense.  Children are not born criminals.  When a child commits a vicious crime something has obviously gone wrong in their life.  We may not be able to protect every child from maltreatment or the violence plaguing so many low income neighborhoods, but when the child does come to the court’s attention, we can help that child.  Our goal for juvenile offenders should always be rehabilitation.

Tonya Davis
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

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Monday, August 6, 2012

Legislation and the Beat Cop: Is Stop-and-Frisk Coming to San Francisco?

Amid continuing national controversy and judicial disapproval, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is standing firmly behind a stop-and-frisk policy similar to one already implemented by New York City.  The policy would allow law enforcement officers to stop and search anyone they considered suspicious.  Proponents of the policy cite crime prevention as the driving force during a period of increased homicides in the city. Opponents, on the other hand, are more concerned about a potential increase in racial profiling and lack of proof that such policies would indeed prevent crimes.
The reasonable suspicion basis is a much lower legal standard than the probable cause normally required under the Fourth Amendment searches and seizures.  The stop and frisk is different from an arrest and a full search – a stop involves only a temporary interference with a person’s liberty, and the frisk is generally limited to the patting down of the suspect’s outside clothing.  Stop-and-frisk has long been implemented by law enforcement unofficially, and the definitions of the policy were not explained until the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio.  In Terry, the Court found that an officer may perform a search for weapons without a warrant, even without probable cause, when the officer reasonably believes that the person may be armed and dangerous.  A Terry stop may not be based on an officer’s hunch that the suspect is up to no good, but instead it must be based on a reasonable, articulable suspicion.  The Court also noted that the purpose of the second component, the frisk, is to ensure the officer’s safety.  As such, the frisk requires reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous, as opposed to just being involved in a crime.

While Terry remains a valid precedent, the issue of racial profiling arose as cities such as New York and Philadelphia began to heavily implement the policy in the 1990s.  A recently released report by the New York Civil Liberties Union demonstrated that the program overwhelmingly targeted minorities to the extent more than eighty percent of those stopped were black or Latino.  In 2011, Philadelphia settled a class-action suit against the city by seven men alleging civil rights violations.  The settlement laid out a model for court supervision and police monitoring and accountability.   Combined with greater interests by the lower courts, it is likely that any future stop-and-frisk policies would be closely monitored and within reach of the judicial system on the local law enforcement level.

Therefore, it seems peculiar that Mayor Lee continues with his push for the implementation of the policy amid lackluster national and local support.  While there has indeed been an increase in homicides, the rise is negligent in the face of declining crime rates throughout the city.  Stop-and-frisk may constitute a valuable tool in the law enforcement arsenal, but whether its benefit is outweighed by the possibility of skewed use and abuse has not been sufficiently demonstrated.  The underlying issue here may be of the importance of decision sovereignty by the patrolling officers – is it better to give greater legislative leeway to the beat cop and hope he or she makes the right call or to limit what they can do and possibly endanger their safety?

Elena Gekker
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

DNA Recording: The Court Allows Maryland to Continue Collecting and Testing DNA Samples from People Who Are Arrested.

On Monday, July 30, Chief Justice Roberts issued a stay to allow Maryland to continue sampling and testing DNA from people who have been arrested, but not yet convicted, of a crime.  This practice came under fire in 2009 when Alonzo Jay King, Jr., was arrested for assault.  During the booking process, personnel at the Wicomico County Central Booking facility took a sample of King’s DNA.  Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division processed the sample and entered it into the Maryland DNA database.  The database matched the sample to a rape that was committed in 2003.  Following this match, King was charged and convicted of that rape. 

King appealed his conviction, arguing that Maryland violated his Fourth Amendment right to an expectation of privacy.  He also argued that expectation of privacy outweighed any interest the State might have in collecting his DNA.  The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed and overturned King’s conviction.  The State appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of the United States.

To issue a stay, the State had to show three things.  First, that there was a “reasonable probability” that the Court would grant certiorari to hear the case.  Second, that there was a “fair prospect” that the Court would reverse the lower court’s decision.  And, third, that there was a “likelihood that harm [would] result from the denial of a stay.” 

The Chief Justice easily found a reasonable probability that the Court would grant certiorari to hear the case.  Given that the Circuit Courts do not agree on the issue––also known as a circuit split––there was a high probability that the Court would hear the case.  Generally, the Court tries to resolve circuit splits to ensure the Constitution is being applied consistently across the country. 

In finding that there was a reasonable probability that the Court would grant certiorari, the Chief Justice characterized this split as “implicat[ing] an important feature of day-to-day law enforcement practices.”  The Chief Justice went on to say that the decision would have effects beyond just Maryland because the samples Maryland collects go into the FBI database and can be matched to crimes across the country. 

The second element the State had to prove was that there was a “fair prospect” that the Court would reverse the lower court.  The Chief Justice addressed this question in a single sentence: “[i]n addition, given the considered analysis of courts on the other side of the split, there is a fair prospect that this Court will reverse the decision below.”  Whether the Chief Justice chose to consider this factor in such a cursory manner because he is concerned whether he has the votes to actually overturn the lower court’s ruling is anyone’s guess.  Issuing the stay is at least an indication that the Court is split on this issue, or they would not have bothered with the stay before deciding whether to take the case.

The third element was that the State would suffer irreparable harm if the stay were not issued.  Chief Justice Roberts credited this program as a “valuable tool for investigating unsolved crimes” and helping reduce the number of violent offenders in the public.  The Chief Justice also noted that crimes that involve DNA evidence in the first place “tend to be serious, and serious crimes cause serious injuries.”  Thus, Maryland does suffer irreparable harm if the stay is not issued. While King argued that the Court should consider Maryland’s eight-week delay as undermining its claim of irreparable harm, the Chief Justice still gave more weight to the value this policy has for law enforcement efforts.

Whether this program will ultimately be found unconstitutional is unknown.  Having granted the stay, it seems almost a certainty that the Court will ultimately hear the case.  The Chief Justice seems to indicate in his opinion granting the stay that the program will ultimately be found constitutional.  However, it is unclear whether he will be able to find the votes to support his position. Criminal law is an interesting area, and the votes do not always follow traditional party lines.   In this last term alone, Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Sotomayor agreed that the installation of a GPS tracking device on a car without a warrant was unconstitutional.  Justices Alito, Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kagan would have found the same result, but disagreed with the majority’s “trespass” approach.  In addition, the Court split 4-1-4 in Williams v. Illinois.  Justices Kagan, Scalia, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor composed the dissenting opinion, while Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Kennedy, Alito, and Breyer composed the majority.  Justice Thomas concurred partially with the dissent, and partially with the majority.  Neither of these cases displayed the usual break down of votes, with Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Alito, Thomas, and Scalia on one side, Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor on the other, with Justice Kennedy as the decisive vote.   

The concern with this sort of program is what safeguards are in place to keep officers from abusing the policy.  Under this program, could an officer arrest a suspect on an unrelated crime as a pretext for collecting their DNA?  Suppose this unrelated crime was a traffic violation.  The Supreme Court has ruled that the police may arrest people for traffic violations, even if the penalty is a simple fine.  The potential for abuse in this type of program seems unavoidable.  Hopefully the Court will address this problem when it inevitably grants certiorari in this case.

Bonnie Lindemann
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief