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Articles Posted in United States Supreme Court

One of the primary concerns of the Founders was to protect the home from unreasonable government intrusion.  A case pending before the United States Supreme Court, Caniglia v. Strom, asks the question of whether the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement extends to the home.

What is “community caretaking?”

To understand the issues in Canigila, we must look back at previous cases decided by the Supreme Court.  In Cady v. Dombrowski, the Court held that police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they searched the trunk of a car that had been towed after an accident.  The Court acknowledged that, “except in certain carefully defined classes of cases,” police cannot search private property without consent or a warrant.  It emphasized, however, that “there is a constitutional difference between houses and cars.”  Since Cady, there has been a whole host of cases that took this holding and created the doctrine of “community caretaking.”  Cady defined community caretaking activities as those “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”  In Cady, the Court found that searches conducted in the performance of community caretaking activities do not require warrants and should be subjected to “the general standard of ‘unreasonableness’ as a guide in determining” their constitutionality.”  Cady’s holding began as a rule authorizing a routine, warrantless inventory search of an automobile lawfully impounded by the police.  Courts have come to view these police functions as a doctrine, In such cases, law enforcement officers perform dual community caretaking functions of aiding persons in need of assistance and protecting property.

Most people know about the “right to remain silent.”  This phrase is used in countless television shows and movies, so many Americans assume that these rights trigger as soon as they are in custody.  But in reality, it is much more confusing.  The Miranda decision itself is unclear as to when exactly Miranda rights begin.  Michigan v. Mathews is a case that is currently pending before the United States Supreme Court and asks the Court to clarify whether Miranda is satisfied when a suspect in custody is advised at the beginning of an interrogation that they have the right to an attorney, but is not explicitly advised that they are entitled to the attorney’s presence before and during interrogation.

The Michigan Court of Appeals held that a general “right to counsel” warning is insufficient, and that Miranda requires language expressly warning the suspect of the right to the presence of counsel before and during interrogation.  This decision conflicts with the Sixth Circuit, so there are different standards for Miranda warnings depending on whether the case goes to state or federal court.

This can be dangerous, because defendants might assume that a warning to a “right to attorney,” may trigger their Miranda rights when in fact they are still unprotected.

The United States Supreme Court in favor of an inmate in Taylor v. Riojas, a decision that was issued yesterday.

What happened in Taylor?

Texas inmate Trent Taylor was subjected to inhumane conditions in his Texas jail cell, after being committed to the unit following a suicide attempt.  The conditions described were horrifying.  Taylor was stripped naked and placed in a cell covered in feces from previous residents.  The feces contaminated his water supply, leading Taylor to not eat or drink for four days out of fear of becoming ill.   Correctional officers then moved Taylor to another cell, which was equally horrific.  The second cell was a “seclusion cell” with no bed or other furniture,  and no toilet to use, just a drain for bodily fluids.  As if the conditions would not get worse, the cell was frigidly cold, and Taylor had nothing but a suicide blanket for warmth.  He was forced to sleep on the urine-soaked floor.  As a result of these conditions, he could not use the bathroom for over 24 hours, and as a result, Taylor suffered a distended bladder requiring catheterization.

The United States Supreme Court may review a case called United States v. Williams that deal with the issue of what is the scope of a permissible search at the border:  Can the search include personal computers and cell phones under the Fourth Amendment?

The Supreme Court has the opportunity to review a case concerning the Fourth Amendment rights travelers have when entering the country with their personal electronics.  The circuits are split multiple ways regarding this issue of warrantless searches of personal electronics at the border.  Some courts allow the search of electronic devices at the border under any circumstances, while other courts hold these searches to a higher standard.  In the case of United States v. Williams, the Tenth Circuit declined to rule on whether searches of personal electronic devices at the border must be subject to reasonable suspicion.  United States v. Williams, 942 F.3d 1187, 1190 (10th Cir. 2019).  But reasonable suspicion is sufficient to justify a warrantless border search of personal electronic devices, and that is the point at issue in this case.

What happened in the Williams Case? 

The United States Supreme Court may hear a case that involves the intersection of the 1st Amendment right to free speech with the right to post on social media.  The case is Hunt v. Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico which may set a legal standard for students’ freedom of speech when they use social media — an issue that has frequently been litigated in recent years with no clear legal standard.  The issue in this case is whether a student’s outrageous and inappropriate Facebook post was a content based restriction on freedom of speech that is prohibited by the First Amendment regardless of how offensive the message.

What did Paul Hunt say on Facebook to incur punishment by the University?  

Paul Hunt was a 24-year-old medical school student at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 2012. He stated that Democrats were “[d]isgusting, immoral, and horrific,” and “sick, disgusting people.” He said Democrats were “WORSE than the Germans during WW2,” Hunt posted a comment on his personal Facebook news feed stating Democrats view on abortion were “disgusting, immoral, and horrific.” He said Democrats were “WORSE than the Germans during WW2,” The comment was reported to administrators at the medical college, who told Hunt he was in violation of the schools “Respectful Campus Policy,” which made it a punishable disciplinary offense to engage in “untrue allegations, unduly inflammatory statements or unduly personal attacks.”

Is your “semiprivate” area in your home’s curtilage protected from prying eyes?

The Fourth Amendment protects all Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Courts define what that means everyday in terms of how far Fourth Amendment protections are extended.  One case that raises an interesting issue is Cyde S. Bovat v. State of Vermont.  This case may be heard by the United States Supreme Court as the defendant has filed a writ of certiorari.

The Question presented in Clyde S. Bovat v. State of Vermont was whether a police officer can access “semiprivate” areas within a home’s curtilage to conduct an investigation without a warrant.What happened in Clyde?

 
In a 6-3 opinion written by notoriously conservative Justice Gorsuch, the United States Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. __ (2020). The opinion was released to the public on June 15, 2020.

What is Title VII?

Title VII is a portion of the larger Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first truly significant civil rights law borne out of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which legally ended segregation. The famous civil rights events found in our history books – from Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech – followed Brownand led to the enactment of Title VII. After a dramatic congressional debate, it was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964.

The tragic death of George Floyd will hopefully bring reforms that help ease racial tensions and move us toward greater equality in society.  One legal doctrine that allows police officers to avoid liability for acts of brutality and excessive force is the doctrine of qualified immunity that should be revisited in light of recent events.

What is the doctrine of Qualified Immunity?  

Qualified Immunity is a legal doctrine established in 1982 with the Supreme Court case Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), to balance constitutional rights and reasonable officer actions by allowing officers to rely on the present state of law at the time of their actions.  This means the officer would not be found in violation of someone’s constitutional rights for following a law that was legal at the time and later ruled unconstitutional. Over time, this has developed in a way that protects an officer’s action above others’ constitutional rights so long as the specific type of violation in question is not “clearly established” as unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court has not defined exactly what “clearly established” means, although it has provided some limited guidance that it is more than a generic statement in the Bill of Rights but does not have to be a precedent with the exact same factual situation.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a major abortion case.  This is the first time since Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the Bench, creating a strong conservative majority, that abortion will be addressed by the Court.  That case, June Medical Services v. Russo addresses whether the Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have privileges in a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic is constitutional. The Louisiana law at issue in this case is virtually identical to the Texas law that was struck down by the Court in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016.

What could happen is anyone’s guess.  The Court could

  • follow the June Medical Services argument to follow stare decisisand rule, as it did with Whole Women’s Health, the law unconstitutional. Or, it could

On November 14, 2019, Thomas Bell, a motorist convicted of DUI, filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the Supreme Court seeking review of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision that warrantless blood test refusals may be used as evidence of guilt in DUI cases under the State’s implied consent law.  The case being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court is Bell v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In Massachusetts, the SJC has ruled that refusal evidence violates a defendant’s privilege against self incrimination under Article 12 of the Massachusetts State Constitutional.

Bell’s Petition  asks the Supreme Court to address the following question:

Whether a motorist’s assertion of his Fourth Amendment right to refuse consent to a warrantless blood test may be used as evidence of guilt for the offense of driving under the influence?

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