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This week at the Court in Plain English

Wow! If you were following the LiveBlog yesterday, you didn’t even have time to refill your coffee cup in between the announcements of the Court’s five — yep, that’s right, five opinions. Even if you weren’t on the LiveBlog, here’s the rundown in Plain English.

Many Court watchers were pretty excited on Thursday because we finally got a number of particularly interesting opinions. Yesterday’s biggest case? J.D.B. v. North Carolina, a case about kids and Miranda rights.

Let’s start with a very brief explanation of what Miranda does. If you have ever seen any crime or police show on television, you probably know that a landmark case known as Miranda (arising under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution) requires police to advise suspects of their rights, especially with respect to self-incrimination. Miranda only applies, however, when a suspect is in custody and being subjected to interrogation. In other words, if a police officer just walks up to you to say hello, and you confess to a crime, you are out of luck because you were neither in custody nor interrogated, that’s pretty clear. But what is less clear, and has been the subject of a lot of Supreme Court litigation over the years, is what exactly it means to be
“in custody” or “interrogated.”

J.D.B. was a case about the custody requirement specifically, whether courts can consider a minor’s age in determining whether a minor is in custody and therefore deserves to be read his rights. Over the last fifty years, the Court has held that to determine whether a suspect was “in custody,” courts should look at whether the reasonable (or average) suspect would think that he is free to leave.

In this case, J.D.B. (the Court uses his initials because he was a minor) was a thirteen year-old who was pulled out of class and taken to a conference room at his school, where, among others, a uniformed police officer questioned him about some stolen goods. J.D.B. eventually confessed to stealing the goods. Later, though, he argued that his confession could not be used because police had not read him his Miranda rights. The North Carolina Supreme Court rejected that argument, however, and he filed a petition for certiorari in which he argued that because he was a minor, he would not reasonably believe that he was free to leave when confronted by a police officer.

Yesterday the Court agreed with J.D.B. and reversed. In a five-four opinion authored by Justice Sotomayor, it held that a minor’s age can be relevant when determining whether he is “in custody” in part because of the psychological differences between minors and adults. It continued, however, to explain that a minor’s age will not always be relevant, but at the very least it will be when the suspect is obviously young or when a police officer knows that the suspect is a minor, a scenario that was clearly the situation here, when the officer was questioning J.D.B. at his middle school.

Although you might think that a defendant would win if the Court ruled in his favor, that’s not always the case. For example, even though the Court agreed that the lower courts should have considered J.D.B.’s age in determining whether he was “in custody,” he will not necessarily get a new trial. Instead, the Court sent the case back to North Carolina for courts in that state to decide whether he was in custody under the new rule.

Something similar happened to Willie Gene Davis, the petitioner in Davis v. United States. In that case, Davis was a passenger in a car that the police pulled over; he was then arrested for giving the police a false name. While Davis was handcuffed and in the back of a police car, the police officer searched his jacket (which was still inside the car) and found a revolver in the pocket. Because Davis had in the past been convicted of a felony, his possession of the gun violated a federal statute, and he was sentenced to over eighteen years in prison.

Before the Eleventh Circuit decided his appeal, the Court issued its opinion in Arizona v. Gant, holding that searches like the one in Davis’s case (where he was restrained in the back of the police car and therefore couldn’t reach the car where his jacket was found) were illegal; there was no reason for the officer to think that a search would find evidence related to his original arrest, giving a false name to the police. Based on the decision in Gant, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with Davis that the search violated the Constitution, but it concluded that the exclusionary rule (which says that illegally seized evidence cannot be used at trial) did not apply. Why? Because the police in his case relied upon the then-good law before Gant, and could not have known that they were violating rights; in other words, they acted in “good faith.”

By a vote of seven to two, the Court agreed with the Eleventh Circuit that the “good faith” standard applied. In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court said that when the police reasonably rely on law made by federal appeals courts to conduct a search, the things that they find in their searches will not be suppressed at trial, even if the Court eventually rules that such searches are unconstitutional. Because the main purpose of the exclusionary rule is to prevent illegal police activity, the Court explained, suppression would do nothing to deter police misconduct, because the police followed the law as they understood it to be at the time.

As Tom noted on the LiveBlog, it’s not a great sign for the exclusionary rule (one of the key protections in place for criminal defendants) that the two new liberal Justices, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, signed on to the majority opinion. Because the Court’s liberal wing more typically stands up for the rights of criminal defendants, their willingness to rule for the police could be a sign that more limitations on the exclusionary rule could be on the horizon.

If you thought J.D.B. and Davis involved interesting facts, you ain’t seen nothing yet. United States v. Bond takes the cake. When Carol Anne Bond found out her best friend was pregnant, she was overjoyed. When she discovered her husband was the one who got her best friend pregnant, she was out for revenge. Bond placed hazardous chemicals on the homewrecker’s mailbox, car door handles and the like, hoping to injure her now-former friend. All the ex-friend got was a minor burn. Here’s where it gets interesting, legally: Bond was not prosecuted under ordinary state laws, for assault or attempted manslaughter charge. Instead, the federal government charged her with violating a law that was passed under an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons.

Does that make sense to you? Well, it didn’t to Carol Anne Bond, either. She argued that she couldn’t be charged with federal crimes because her crimes were the kind of crimes that states should prosecute. Put into constitutional terms, her argument was that when Congress passed the law, it intruded on the rights that the Constitution, in the Tenth Amendment, leaves for the states. The court of appeals ruled against her, holding that she didn’t even have the legal right (which we call “standing”) to bring the claim, because only a state could argue that Congress had infringed upon state power. At the Supreme Court, Bond got some help from an unexpected source: the federal government, which agreed with her that she had the right to challenge the law, a procedure that is known as “confessing error,” or admitting that you are wrong. So the Court appointed an attorney (in this case, as it usually does, it chose a former Supreme Court clerk) to argue that the Third Circuit had been correct.

On Thursday, the Court unanimously agreed with Bond and the government that she did have “standing” to argue that the federal government had gone too far. The Court pointed out that the right Bond seeks to vindicate is her own, because she benefits from a federalist (states’ rights) system. But here too, Bond’s victory was only the first step in the process of being vindicated: now she must return to the lower courts and convince them that the federal statute does indeed violate the Tenth Amendment.

The federal government does not confess error often (perhaps a few times a Term, at most), but on Thursday, the Court decided another case in which the Solicitor General did exactly that. Here’s why. In Tapia v. United States, the Court considered a sentencing issue: whether a district court judge can consider the defendant’s need for rehabilitation when deciding how long a sentence to impose (or whether prison is necessary at all).

The petitioner in this case, Alejandra Tapia, was convicted of (among other things) smuggling illegal immigrants into the country. In sentencing her to fifty-one months in prison, the district court judge explained that he was choosing a sentence at the high end of possible sentences because he wanted to make sure that Tapia would qualify for the prison’s drug rehabilitation program. On appeal, Tapia argued that the choice of a longer sentence was improper because the judge was trying to further a goal of rehabilitation which, she alleged, was not allowed by federal sentencing laws. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the sentence.

The Court granted review and reversed. (Yes, the Ninth Circuit is frequently reversed by the Supreme Court, although in this case the lower court, which is usually accused of being too liberal, was reversed for its pro-government ruling.) In a unanimous opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court held that a district court judge cannot consider the defendant’s need for rehabilitation when calculating a prison sentence. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? The government apparently thought so as well, because here too it took the defendant’s side. Once again, the Court appointed an advocate to represent the other view, and again, the Court rejected that view.

In Thursday’s final opinion, Smith v. Bayer, the Court decided one of several class action disputes before it this Term. Like Bond, this case implicated important aspects of federalism, this time because similar cases were going on in both the state and federal courts.

The underlying facts are simple: Bayer put out an allegedly hazardous cholesterol drug, Baycol, which was eventually taken off pharmacy shelves. Two West Virginia men, George McCollins and Keith Smith, both sued Bayer in West Virginia. Each man did so not only on his own behalf, but also on behalf of others who had been injured by the drug, a so-called “class action,” in which many would-be lawsuits are combined as one to save money and time. For procedural reasons, Bayer transferred the suit brought by McCollins to federal court, where large corporations often prefer to be, but it was unable to do so in Smith’s case. When McCollins filed a motion to have all of the West Virginia Baycol purchasers “certified” (or recognized) as a class, the District Court rejected that motion. It reasoned that it would be inappropriate to have the case proceed as a class action because, under federal rules, each individual would have to prove that he was actually injured by the drug.

When a class isn’t certified, it is usually the death knell for those claims because they are too expensive to be litigated one by one. But once the federal lawsuit had effectively ended, Bayer then tried to shut down Smith’s state suit as well, by asking the federal court to issue an order that would stop the state court from hearing Smith’s motion for class certification. Bayer argued, in essence, that because the state court suit involved essentially the same issues and same people, the district court order was necessary to keep the plaintiffs from doing an end run around the denial of class certification in the federal lawsuit.

As a general rule of federalism, the federal courts try to avoid telling state courts what to do, but here the district court agreed with Bayer and issued the order, which the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

But the Supreme Court reversed, unanimously agreeing with Smith that it was inappropriate for the federal courts to prevent the state court from certifying the class. As Justice Kagan joked when she announced the opinion from the bench, if you understand this ruling, you have a law degree and you’ve had a cup of coffee.

That’s all for this week. We are expecting opinions on both Monday and Thursday next week, and I’ll explain those in Plain English too.

Recommended Citation: Lisa Tucker, This week at the Court in Plain English, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 17, 2011, 3:58 PM),