Weekly Case Summaries: May 21, 2010

U.S Supreme Court

Graham v. Florida (5-4)

05/17/10 : Cite No. 08-7412


Issue:

Can a juvenile offender (under 18) be sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime?

Holding (Kennedy, Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, & Sotomayor, J.J.):

No, the court found that the Eighth Amendment is offended by such grossly disproportionate punishment. "When compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice-diminished moral culpability. The age of the offender and the nature of the crime each bear on the analysis." While a state need not "guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a non-homicide crime," it must afford the juvenile "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." Read Opinion.

Concurrence (Stevens, Ginsburg, & Sotomayor, J.J.):

"Evolving standards of decency" dictate the result.

Concurrence (Roberts, C.J.):

Such a "new constitutional rule of dubious provenance" is unnecessary, but the result as applied in this case is correct under a non-death penalty "narrow proportionality" review and on the grounds that juvenile offenders are generally less culpable than adult offenders.

Dissent (Thomas, Scalia, & Alito J.J.):

The issue is not one that the court can decide any better than fellow citizens. Proportionality was not incorporated by the drafters of the Eighth Amendment, despite awareness of the concept, and the majority disregards the national consensus to substitute its own judgment.

Commentary:

Each new SCOTUS 8th amendment case reveals an increasingly unprincipled approach to constitutional litigation. This time we get a multi-factored test that frees any judge to demonstrate the flexibility of constitutional interpretation. The opinion could be written a dozen different ways, and each version would be just as "valid" as the other. Only the dissenting judges show a principled approach: the issue of appropriate punishments, especially as to the length of confinement, is a classicly legislative function, and was never intended to be part of 8th amendment litigation. Special complaint: although a majority of states have laws permitting life without parole for juveniles, apparently you now have to apply it more often to impress 5 SCOTUS judges. (Insert shake of head.) Still, this opinion won't alter Texas law, as juveniles currently do not face life without parole for any offense, including capital murder.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Ex Parte Anthony Mares

05/19/10 : Cite No. AP-76,219

Issue:

Was it a Brady violation when the prosecution failed to turn over inadmissible hearsay statements from the victim that identified the co-conspirator as the shooter?

Holding:

Yes. The statements would have allowed the defendant to present a new defense to persuade the jury that he was not the shooter. The defendant could have also taken a deposition in case, as happened here, the witness became unavailable. Finally, the statements may have led to other evidence or been introduced as impeachment evidence. Read Opinion. 

Commentary:

This case is significant because the CCA applied the narrowest form of relief, reversing only as to punishment and not as to guilt. The CCA did justify that relief by applying a defensive theory that was not used at trial, arguing that it might have been applied if the exculpatory evidence had been available. That seems a bit awkward, because the defendant claimed at trial that he wasn't involved at all in the aggravated robbery. The CCA's argument seems to imply that the defendant wouldn't have lied at trial if he had thought another theory would have worked better.

Flores v. State

05/19/10 : Cite No. PD-1016-09

Issue:

Was the anonymous informant's tip, combined with evidence from the defendant's trash, a substantial basis for the magistrate to determine probable cause existed to issue a search warrant?

Holding:

Yes. The magistrate could infer that the anonymous informant had familiarity with the defendant and his affairs. The informant's tip, along with the other circumstances, was enough to determine probable cause existed. Read Opinion.

Commentary:

This is a significant "trash run" case that should be passed along immediately to officers doing narcotics investigations. Two trash runs and some supporting corroboration is enough to search a home. Judge Meyers takes a more libertarian, dissenting view, expressing incredulity that having marihuana stems and seeds in your trash justifies a reasonable belief that you might have similar drugs in your home. Really?

Texas Supreme Court

State v. $281,420

05/14/10 : Cite No. 08-0465

Issue:

In a forfeiture proceeding, was a tow-truck driver who turned over a towed vehicle to law enforcement entitled to the money he helped discover in the vehicle's axle?

Holding:

No. Even if the property was abandoned, the tow truck driver never expressed an intent to acquire title in the currency; the "treasure trove" or "finders keepers" doctrine is not recognized in Texas; and the currency was not "lost" or "mislaid" property to which he was entitled because he did not own the towed vehicle and the currency was deliberately hidden. Finally, the State may be able to dispose of the property by way of Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 18.17 (disposal of abandoned and unclaimed property).  Read Opinion.

Commentary:

Can't decide what is more amazing: a South Texas jury decides (1) $281,000 in cash, hidden in an axle of a towed car, isn't contraband, or (2) a tow truck driver with no other connection to the money is the rightful owner. (Insert second shake of head.) Still, you have to admire the moxie of the tow truck driver.