CourtSide - The FindLaw Breaking Legal News Blog

June 2014 Archives

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police officers usually need a warrant before they can search an arrested suspect's cellphone.

The 9-0 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts held the right of police to search an arrested suspect at the scene without a warrant does not extend in most circumstances to data held on a cellphone. Still, there are some emergency situations in which a warrantless search would be permitted, the court said.

Ruling on two cases from California and Massachusetts, the justices acknowledged both a right to privacy and a need to investigate crimes. But they came down squarely on the side of privacy rights.

Seeing someone with a cellphone is such a common thing today, that "the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy," Roberts wrote. "We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime...Privacy comes at a cost."

A federal appeals court has released a secret Justice Department memo that justifies a 2011 drone attack that killed Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born Islamist preacher and suspected al Qaeda leader.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals released a redacted version of the secret Obama administration memorandum on Monday. The memo (which starts on page 67 after the opinion) states that since the U.S. government considered al Awlaki to be an "operational leader" of an "enemy force," it was legal for the Central Intelligence Agency to attack him with a drone even though he was a U.S. citizen.

The memo says the killing was further justified under Congressional authorization for the use of U.S. military force following the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked-plane attacks.

The Obama administration released the memo in response to a court order following Freedom of Information lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times.

"High-level government officials have concluded, on the basis of al-Aulaqi's activities in Yemen, that al-Aulaqi is a leader of (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) whose activities in Yemen pose a 'continued an imminent threat' of violence to United states persons and interests," the document said.

Awlaki was killed in what U.S. officials acknowledged at the time was a CIA drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, Reuters reports. Another American citizen, Samir Khan, was killed in the same attack, although U.S. officials have said that Khan was not intentionally targeted.

Six federal trademark registrations owned by the Washington Redskins were cancelled by an appeal board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The board ruled the term "Redskins" is disparaging to a "substantial composite" of Native Americans.

The immediate legal impact of the ruling, which can be appealed to federal court, could be limited, however. The Washington Redskins football team is not required to stop using the name.

But Wednesday's 2-1 board ruling (attached below) could give critics of the term another shot to urge Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder to change it.

"[W]e decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered," said the 2-1 ruling by a panel of three administrative trademark judges at the patent agency, also known as the PTO.

If the trademark ruling survives any potential appeals, the Redskins would lose certain rights and find it harder to crack down on unauthorized sales of merchandise with the team's name and logo.

"This probably isn't going to affect the team's ability to run the business or enforce its rights," Marc Reiner, an intellectual-property lawyer at Moss & Kalish PLLC, in New York, told The Wall Street Journal. "This is just a government body saying that it's inappropriate to have this as a registered trademark."

California's laws on teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissals deprive students of their constitutional right to an education, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling is a serious defeat for teachers' unions that overturns several California laws that govern the way teachers are hired and fired. 

The 16-page decision (attached below) may set off a slew of legal fights in California and other states, where many education reform advocates are eager to change similar laws.

"There is ... no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms," Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote. "Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students.

"The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."

Enforcement of the much awaited ruling in Vergara v. California will be delayed pending an appeal by the lawsuit's defendants, the state and California's two major teachers unions.

The Seventh Circuit has written a scathing rejection of a "scandalous" class-action settlement by in which a lawyer inserted his father-in-law as a named plaintiff and negotiated a $2 million advance on his fee.

Judge Richard Posner wrote in the opinion (attached below) that the lower court should have heeded dire warning signs. 

"Almost every danger sign in a class action settlement that our court and other courts have warned district judges to be on the lookout for was present in this case," Posner wrote. "The district court approved a class action settlement that is inequitable-- even scandalous."

Lead attorney Paul M. Weiss' agreement was structured to pay him and his co-counsel $11 million. 

Though the settlement was valued at $90 million, the class "could not expect to receive more than $8.5 million from the settlement, given all the obstacles that the terms of the settlement strewed in the path of the class members," Posner wrote.

A delayed General Motors recall that led to at least 13 deaths was caused by "a pattern of incompetence and neglect" throughout the company, an internal report released Thursday said.

GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra announced that 15 employees -- many of them senior legal and engineering executives -- have been dismissed and five more have been disciplined after the probe by former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas.

Valukas' report, described by Barra as "brutally tough and deeply troubling," is attached below.

Barra has confirmed that GM will soon begin compensating victims of crashes linked to the faulty ignition switches that have plagued the company for over a decade, The Associated Press reports. The program is expected to begin taking claims August 1 of this year.

GM officials said that the number of fatalities related to the part defect may rise. Reuters reports that at least 74 people have died in crashes similar to those GM has linked to the faulty switches, based on an analysis of government data.