Supreme Court Criminal Law News - U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

Recently in Criminal Law Category

Jae Lee immigrated to the United States from South Korea when he was just a teenager. Decades later, he was accused of dealing ecstasy in Memphis, Tennessee. At the urging of his attorney, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year and one day in jail.

Here's the rub. Unlike his parents, Lee had never become an American citizen. And despite his concerns, his attorney assured him that a guilty plea would not result in his deportation, an assurance that turned out to be dead wrong. Now Lee will go before the Supreme Court tomorrow, arguing that his conviction should be overturned due to ineffective assistance of counsel. But will the fact that Lee was almost guaranteed to lose at trial keep him from prevailing?

Courts must be allowed to consider evidence that jurors relied on racial bias or animus in convicting a defendant, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The ruling creates an important exception to the so-called "no-impeachment rule," a rule of evidence that bars post-verdict testimony about juror deliberations. When those deliberations, due to juror bias, may have violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, courts must be allowed to consider such evidence, the Court explained in a 5-3 decision written by Justice Kennedy.

Juan Esquivel-Quintana was 20 years old when he pleaded no contest to having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. Though the relationship would not have been a crime in 43 states or under federal law, it was one in California, where the state prohibits an adult to have sex with a minor three or more years younger. And because Esquivel-Quintana was a legal immigrant, not a citizen, his conviction led the U.S. government to begin deportation proceedings.

Esquivel-Quintana's case came before the Court earlier this week, as the Justices heard arguments over whether his crime qualifies as an "aggravated felony" mandating his deportation.

After years of fruitless appeals, Duane Buck won a decisive victory in the Supreme Court this morning. The Texas inmate had been sentenced to death in part due to expert testimony, presented by his own defense, that Buck posed a greater risk of violence simply because of his race. For almost two decades, Buck challenged that death sentence, most recently by arguing that his counsel was ineffective and that his case merited relief due to the extraordinary circumstances. Today, the Supreme Court agreed, 6-2.

Buck's death sentence, tinged as it was by racism, was "a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system," Chief Justice Roberts wrote from the majority. "Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are."

When police officers in Washington, D.C. responded to a noise complaint one night in 2008, they found an unusual scene: women in lingerie, money hanging from their garter belts, marijuana smoke wafting through the air. It was something out of a make-shift strip joint, not the empty tableau you'd expect in a reportedly vacant building.

But the partygoers had an excuse: A woman going by "Peaches" and "Tasty" had invited them. And she had, it turns out. But the partiers were arrested for trespassing anyway. Now, nearly nine years later, their case is coming before the Supreme Court.

Lawrence Shaw was convicted of federal bank fraud after he stole $300,000 from the checking account of Stanley Hsu. Shaw doesn't deny that he took the cash, but he does object to the bank fraud conviction. He can't, Shaw argues, have defrauded a bank, since he had no specific intent to cheat the bank itself. He just wanted Hsu's cash.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument on Monday, ruling unanimously that Shaw's contention that he wasn't cheating the bank, only the bank's customer, didn't save him from the reach of the bank fraud law.

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear four cases from death row inmates facing execution, resulting in a rare dissent from a denial of certiorari by Justice Breyer. In one case, an inmate had spent 40 years on Florida's death row, awaiting an execution that has yet to come. The Berlin Wall was still standing when the man was sentenced to death, Justice Breyer noted. Saigon had just fallen. Over half of all Americans alive today had yet to be born.

In another denied case, an inmate in Ohio had already evaded execution once -- because the executioner could not find a vein through which to lethally inject him. To try again now, after one botched attempt, would be unconstitutional, he argued.

The eight-justice Supreme Court has deadlocked several times since Justice Scalia's passing last February. Four-four ties have left important cases undecided (last term's Friedrichs and U.S. v. Texas opinions), seen urgent issues returned to lower courts (the remand of Zubik), and prompted litigants to settle, rather than pursue their cases.

Now, the Court's deadlock has its first actual, human victim. Yesterday, the Court split four-four over a last-minute request for a stay of execution by Ronald Smith, a convicted murderer in Alabama whose jury rejected the death penalty -- only to be overridden by the judge. The Court's deadlock allowed Smith's execution to go ahead, and he was put to death last night.

In its first merits opinion of the term, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prevent the retrial of a Puerto Rican lawmaker and a businessman who were convicted of bribery. Those convictions were later overturned because of faulty jury instructions. And they were paired with inconsistent acquittals, on two uncontested counts.

At issue before the Court was whether those inconsistent verdicts, following the vacatur of the bribery convictions, prevented the government from trying the men once again. It did not, the Supreme Court ruled, since inconsistent verdicts were not to be afforded preclusive effect.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in the case of Moore v. Texas, a challenge to the standards Texas uses to determine whether inmates are too mentally disabled to be executed. In this case, Bobby James Moore was sentenced to death in 1980 for the murder of a grocery store clerk. A court later ruled that Moore was too mentally disabled to be executed, based on modern medical standards. Texas's highest criminal court, however, reversed that determination.

Questions of intellectual disability and eligibility for capital punishment, Texas ruled, must be determined on the state's judicial precedent, which references an outdated medical definition of disability from 1992 and Lennie Small. Yes, that Lennie, the kindhearted but dim-witted character from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."