Weekly Case Summaries: February 24, 2012

Supreme Court of the United States

Howes v. Fields

No. 10-080 : 2/21/12 (6-3)

Issue:

Does the Supreme Court's precedent establish that questioning (1) an inmate (2) in isolation (3) about events in the outside world categorically qualifies as "custodial" interrogation such that Miranda warnings must be given before any statements will be admissible?

Holding (Alito, J.,):

No, interviews of inmates are not custodial per se. All features of the interrogation are relevant—just as the inmate's perspective of his freedom of movement, informed by the language used to summon the inmate and the manner in which his interview is conducted, are considered. Fields was not in custody because he was repeatedly told that he was free to leave and all the circumstances were "consistent with an interrogation environment in which a reasonable person would have felt free to terminate the interview and leave."
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Concurring and dissenting (Ginsburg, Breyer, & Sotomayor, J.J.,):

Although the law is not clearly established, Fields was in custody.

Commentary:

The key feature in this case appears to be the fact that the defendant was repeatedly told that he was free at any time to end the interview and return to his cell.  So in that regard, this decision is not particularly shocking, and it appears to be logical after the Court’s recent decision in Maryland v. Shatzer.  This is a decision issued in a writ of habeas corpus, so the standards of review are different than in the normal direct appeal.  But the basic holding in the case should still hold up on direct appeal as well, and it is consistent with other case law that you can find on the matter.

Messerschmidt v. Milender

No. 10-704 : 2/22/12 (6-3)

Issue:

Were officers personally liable under 42 U.S.C. §1983 because a residential search warrant for all weapons and any gang membership materials was overbroad (thus lacking probable cause) given the domestic nature of the offense and the defendant's use of only a sawed-off shotgun?

Holding (Robert's C.J.,):

No, the doctrine of qualified immunity shielded the officers from personal liability. The fact that a neutral magistrate issued a warrant is the clearest indication that the officers acted in an objectively reasonable manner. Also, no reasonable officer would have recognized that the magistrate obviously wrongly issued the warrant. The affidavits had been reviewed by a supervisor and a prosecutor and the officers conducted an extensive investigation and completed a detailed warrant application. The defendant had one illegal gun, belonged to a gang, was willing to kill with a gun, and was concerned about the police. A reasonable officer could have believed both that the seizure of firearms was necessary to protect the victim and that the defendant was less concerned about his souring relationship with the victim than with preventing her from revealing gang activity to the police. The officers "took every step that could reasonably be expected of them."
Read Opinion 

Concurring:

Justice Breyer joined the majority and wrote separately that he concurred on the basis that the defendant had one illegal gun, belonged to a gang, was willing to kill with a gun, and was concerned about the police so that a reasonable officer could believe that the seizure of firearms was necessary to protect the victim.

Concurring and dissenting:

Justice Kagan opined that the search for the firearms was valid but that the search for the gang membership materials was invalid.

Dissenting:

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg were unable to "disagree more" that the officer's conduct was objectively reasonable.

Commentary:

This is a wonderful opinion for prosecutors and law enforcement.  A typical search warrant is reviewed according to what reasonable inferences and findings that a magistrate can make based upon facts presented to him, and—by contrast—this decision was focused upon what was reasonable for the officers to conclude in this case (because they were the ones being sued).  Nevertheless, there is great language in this opinion concerning what reasonably could be concluded, so as to support the search for, and recovery of, a broad array of violent evidence, that is, guns and gang membership evidence.  This is a civil rights action and not a direct appeal.  But there is still nevertheless a great deal of really good Fourth Amendment jurisprudence presented in this opinion.

Texas Court of Appeals

State v. Hanrahan – 10th COA

No. 10-11-00155-CR : 2/15/12 (not published)

Issue:

Did an officer have reasonable suspicion to stop a car around midnight for swerving from side-to-side within its lane and crossing the fog-line?

Holding:

No, the trial court made a credibility determination. The record reflects that the officer was uncertain as to the degree the car crossed the fog-line and the video showed no crossing.
Read Opinion 

Commentary:

The court appeared to place significance upon the fact that the patrol car’s video tape did not clearly show a crossing of the fog line as testified by the officer.  In a defendant’s appeal, that might not present a problem.  But in a State’s appeal, that would almost certainly be fatal.  The court of appeals should not have nit-picked as to what “degree” the officer said that the defendant crossed the fog line (this is not a tennis match for crying out loud).  The court should have instead just focused upon the video evidence that allegedly contradicted the officer’s testimony.

State v. Castillo – 13th COA

No. 13-11-083-CR : 2/16/12 (not published)

Issue:

Did an officer have reasonable suspicion to stop a car around midnight for weaving across lanes, crossing onto the shoulder, and traveling at under half the speed limit?

Holding:

Yes, erratic or unsafe driving at that time of night suffices. 
Read Opinion

Commentary:

I know what you may be saying.  “How did we win this State’s appeal, when we lost the previous one?”  Two key differences.  First, the trial court in this case made a finding that essentially supported the officer’s testimony.  Second, there was no contradiction or dispute to the officer’s testimony.  Good job by the State.

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