An awareness of what issues the Supreme Court has pending before it will help guide counsel in the litigation of criminal matters, and aid the identification and preservation of issues for appellate review. A list of pending Supreme Court cases is available on the Central California Appellate Project website (www.capcentral.org). Another good source for this information is the Supreme Court of the United States Blog (www.scotusblog.com). Practitioners can also view the questions presented in pending cases directly from the Supreme Court’s website (www.supremecourt.gov).
Several important cases to criminal practitioners are now before the Supreme Court. This article summarizes four of those cases.
Miller v. Alabama (10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647) – LWOP for Juveniles Convicted of Homicide
In Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Court will consider whether it violates the 8th Amendment to sentence juveniles to life-without-parole for homicide offenses. These matters are scheduled for oral argument on March 20, 2012. In 2010, the Court barred life-without-parole sentences for minors convicted of non-homicide crimes (Graham v. Florida). Miller/Jackson will determine whether that holding is to be extended to minors convicted of murder.
The minors in both cases were 14-year-olds at the time of the offenses. Based upon the court’s prior rulings, however, the Court will not likely confine its ruling to that specific age, but to all youths under age 18. In the Alabama case, the defendant was convicted of killing a neighbor in a trailer park. The killing resulted after Miller severely beat the victim, who could not get up from the floor, and who later died of smoke inhalation after Miller set fire to the trailer. In the Arkansas case, the facts support that the minor’s role was that of a lookout in a robbery where a store clerk was shot and killed. This case presents the issue of whether life-without-parole punishment is permissible when the minor is convicted under a felony murder or other theory where intent to kill need not be proven. Any practitioner litigating a case where a minor is tried as an adult for murder should be following these cases closely.
Williams v. Illinois (10-8505) – Confrontation Clause Limits to Expert Testimony
This case was argued on December 6, 2011. Williams presents the question of whether an expert’s testimony about the substance of an analyst’s report violates the Confrontation Clause if the defendant has no opportunity to confront the actual analyst. This case will help define the reach and limits of Crawford v. Washington. The government has argued that experts routinely rely on out-of-court statements in forming their opinions, that the jury is instructed not to consider those statements for their truth. Williams may decide under what circumstances testimony about material an expert relied upon is not being admitted for its truth, thereby making the Confrontation Clause inapplicable. Another practical issue the court may decide is when a report was prepared by multiple analysts, how many analysts must testify, and which ones.
Lafler v. Cooper (10-209) and Missouri v. Frye – What Remedy for IAC During Plea Negotiations?
These matters were argued on October 31, 2011. The question presented is whether a defendant who rejects a plea offer because of ineffective assistance of counsel is entitled to relief if the defendant later receives a longer sentence than the prosecution had offered under the plea after receiving a constitutionally adequate trial. The government has argued remedying counsel’s ineffective assistance will open the floodgates to post-conviction or post-guilty plea appeals and habeas petitions. The defendants and their amici argued that effective counsel is crucial to the integrity of the plea process, particularly given that prosecutors possess significantly more information than defendants during plea negotiations.
Florida v. Jardines (11-564) – Is Dog Sniff at Front Door of Home a Search?
No oral argument date has been set in this matter. The use of drug sniffing dogs is a widespread police practice. The court held in Illinois v. Caballes that use of a drug dog to sniff around a vehicle is not a search. Florida v. Jardines will decide whether Caballes may be extended to a person’s home.
**This article was published in the March 2012 edition of the Criminal Law Section E-Bulletin