Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Procedure

Two New York State Court Panels Suppress Evidence and Spark Great Controversy

In Part One of a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb begins her analysis of two controversial rulings issued at the end of June and the beginning of July, respectively, by two panels of a New York State appeals court (the Appellate Division, First Department). Each ruling concluded that police had violated a suspect’s state constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that as a result, the trial judges should have “suppressed” the weapons found on the suspects—that is, held that the weapons could not be introduced against the suspects if and when they became defendants at a criminal trial. Colb explains the logic behind the rulings, which is related to New York's “Stop and Frisk” laws. She also contrasts New York and federal law in this area.

Can A Lower Federal Court Effectively Provide Protection Against Prosecution? A Mississippi Abortion Law Raises the Question

Justia columnist and U.C., Davis law professor Vikram David Amar comments on an interesting and important issue regarding the power of federal courts. Specifically, Amar addresses the question whether a federal court can issue an injunction against future prosecution: If a district court tells you that the actions you are about to take are immune from prosecution, should you be able to rely on that immunity, even if it turns out that the district judge had provided it based on a flawed legal premise? As Amar points out, the Supreme Court precedent on this question is far from clear, and at least one of the Court’s liberals has suggested that reliance by a party on immunity that is wrongfully accorded to that party by a district court may be foolhardy. Amar also explains how this issue has arisen in a current controversy about Mississippi abortion services.

Denying Clemency for Draconian Sentencing Based on Bad Information: The Clarence Aaron Case

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on a criminal case in which he argues that a deeply unjust sentence was handed down. Dean contends that it is high time for presidential clemency for the prisoner, Clarence Aaron, especially as the record shows that the Pardon Attorney gave President George W. Bush’s staff inaccurate and incomplete information in the case. As Dean explains, drawing on reporting by The Washington Post and ProPublica, Aaron—a 23-year-old first-time offender at the time of his arrest—was convicted for his role in abetting a non-violent drug deal. Dean notes that other participants in the deal had made careers in the drug business, and received light sentences in exchange for pointing the finger at Aaron, who received three life sentences. Their testimony has, since then, been shown and admitted to be false, yet Aaron still languishes in jail. Especially now that Aaron has the support of the relevant U.S. Attorney, Deborah Rhodes, and the sentencing judge, Dean contends that it is high time that Aaron receives a pardon.

How the Government May, and May Not, Punish People’s Thoughts and Words

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on instances in which the criminal law punishes people’s thoughts and/or words instead of—or in addition to—their acts, despite the First Amendment’s protections for speech and thought. Colb analyzes the uneasy relationship between criminal and civil litigation, on one hand, and guarantees of free speech, on the other. She also covers the categories of speech that the Supreme Court has deemed unprotected by the First Amendment. Moreover, Colb notes that it is perfectly constitutional to use a person’s words as evidence of what he or she has done, or is planning. In addition, Colb describes the subtle answer to the question of whether limits on free thought can constitutionally be imposed, for thought is the essence of culpability. Finally, she concludes by describing the permissible use of evidence of thoughts in determining what may be deemed a hate crime (as well as what may be deemed a violation of discrimination law).

Why the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) Is Not the Solution to U.S. Cyber Attack Fears

Justia guest columnist Anjali Dalal, Postdoctoral Associate in Law and Google Fellow, Information Society Project at Yale Law School, comments on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Dalal argues that while cybersecurity is a very genuine concern for the U.S., CISPA’s approach is not the way to address that concern. Dalal makes four key points to support her thesis, contending that (1) CISPA could reach common, otherwise legal Internet activities; (2) that information received from private companies under CISPA could be used for purposes other than cybersecurity; (3) that CISPA appears to effect an end-run around the Fourth Amendment; and (4) that CISPA subordinates civil-liberties protections to national security concerns. Dalal also describes the next steps that we are likely to see in the battle over CISPA.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her analysis of an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” In Part One, Colb focused on a set of Supreme Court precedents that are relevant to the Howes case. Here, in Part Two, Colb takes on the case that is arguably the most relevant of all to Howes: Maryland v. Shatzer. Shatzer, as Colb explains, concerns what implications a “break in custody” might have for Miranda purposes, and whether such a “break in custody” can occur while a person is incarcerated. Colb goes on to explain and critique the Howes Court’s approach to related Miranda issues. She takes sharp issue, in particular, with what she characterizes as a deeply unrealistic view of prisoners’ lives in prison, on the part of the Court.

Why Interrogation in Jail May Not Count as “Custodial”: The Supreme Court Makes New Law in Howes v. Fields Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on an important recent Supreme Court decision, Howes v. Fields, regarding the right to be read one’s Miranda rights—the familiar set of rights that begins with “You have the right to remain silent.” As Colb explains, Fields sets forth the law regarding Miranda in the context of the interrogation of persons who are already incarcerated. In this column, Colb explains the facts and outcomes of the prior Supreme Court Miranda precedents that proved relevant in Fields. In both parts of the series, she takes strong issue with the Court’s reasoning in the Fields decision—in part because she argues that the Court has a very unrealistic view of the realities of prison.

The Supreme Court Decides the GPS Case, United States v. Jones, and the Fourth Amendment Evolves: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part Two in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb continues her commentary on the Supreme Court’s recent GPS (Global Positioning System) decision, which concerned the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As Colb explains, the Court was unanimous regarding the decision’s result: The police had, indeed, performed a Fourth Amendment search or seizure by—without a warrant—attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car, and then using the device to monitor the car's movements over a four-week period. Yet, as Colb points out, the Court was divided as to the reason for the result, offering two alternative rationales for the case's outcome. Here, in Part Two, Colb explains why Justices Scalia and Alito—both deemed to be conservative—nevertheless differed regarding what the proper rationale for the Court’s unanimous ruling ought to be. Colb argues that Justice Alito’s rationale is the more compelling of the two.

The Supreme Court Decides the GPS Case, United States v. Jones, and the Fourth Amendment Evolves: Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns

In Part One in a two-part series of columns, Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on the Supreme Court's recent GPS (Global Positioning System) decision, which concerned the scope of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As Colb explains, the Court was unanimous regarding the decision’s result: The police had, indeed, performed a Fourth Amendment search or seizure by—without a warrant—attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car, and using the device to monitor the car's movements over a four-week period. Interestingly, though, Colb points out that the Court was divided as to the reason for the result—offering two alternative rationales for the case’s outcome. Here, in Part One, Colb explains the seminal precedent of Katz v. United States, and other key Fourth Amendment precedents, including one that involved tracking a car with a beeper device. In Part Two, appearing here on Justia’s Verdict next Wednesday, February 15, Colb will consider why this case divided Justices Scalia and Alito.

The U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up The Eighth Amendment and Juvenile Killers: Is Life Without Parole Too Severe?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on two criminal law cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has granted review. As Colb explains, the two cases together raise the following question: Does the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments ban prohibit mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for homicide offenses committed by fourteen-year-olds? In one case, the fourteen-year-old had suffered years of abuse and neglect, as well as severe poverty. In the other case, the fourteen-year-old apparently learned only on the way to a planned robbery that one of his accomplices was carrying a gun, and it was the accomplice who committed murder during the robbery, not the fourteen-year-old. (The fourteen-year-old was thus only charged with murder under the “felony murder” doctrine, based on his participation in a robbery that led to murder.) Colb explains that, in these two cases, the Court will need to consider the relationships among three relevant factors: (1) the capacity of an offender to behave morally; (2) the wrongfulness of the offender’s behavior; and (3) the harmful consequences of the offender’s actions. She describes the relevant prior Supreme Court precedents regarding juvenile offenders and other criminal law topics, and raises intriguing questions such as whether youth itself should be a mitigating factor to be taken into account in sentencing, in light of young teens’ demonstrably poor impulse control and susceptibility to pressure from others. Colb also covers the sentencing concepts of proportionality and discretion, and explains how they relate to these two cases. In addition, she describes—and, to some extent, challenges—the Supreme Court's “Death is different” jurisprudence, which singles out the death penalty for special notice despite the tremendous severity of an LWOP sentence, and the failure of an LWOP sentence to leave the offender hope for the future.

What Purpose Does the Double Jeopardy Clause Serve?: The U.S. Supreme Court Grants Review in Blueford v. Arkansas

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a double jeopardy case that the Supreme Court will hear during this coming term. As readers may know, the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause provides, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The Clause’s application is simple in some scenarios—for instance, if a defendant is tried for murder and acquitted, and yet the very same prosecutor then brings the same murder charges against the same defendant again. However, Colb points out that the double jeopardy case that the Court will address is far from simple. There, the question is whether the Double Jeopardy Clause applies to the following scenario: A defendant’s jury has announced to the judge that it cannot reach a verdict on a lesser included offense, but it has also voted unanimously to find the defendant “Not guilty” of two greater offenses. (A lesser included offense is a less serious version of another, greater offense.) The judge refused to allow the two “Not guilty” verdicts to be recorded, and declared a mistrial. Can the defendant then be re-tried on the greater offenses? Colb considers this interesting and complicated constitutional question.

One Way or Another, I’m Gonna Find Ya: The U.S. Supreme Court Considers Whether GPS Tracking of Suspects’ Cars Requires a Search Warrant

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on United States v. Jones, a case that the Supreme Court will hear this year, and that The New York Times called “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.” The case raises the question whether police who track a suspect’s movements over time, via a global positioning system (GPS) device, intrude on the suspect’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Colb covers an earlier High Court precedent involving the older police practice of putting a “beeper” in a container before a suspect loads the container into his vehicle, and then following the beeper’s trail, but she explains why that scenario is very different from the use of GPS. Colb also connects the GPS case, Jones, to the interesting concept of “innocent privacy”—that is, the privacy of innocent people, and everyone’s privacy vis-à-vis the innocent but personal parts of their lives. In addition, Colb contrasts the likely Fourth Amendment statuses of GPS location information versus cellphone location information, which is now frequently procured without a warrant.

The U.S. Supreme Court Considers the Constitutionality of Unreliable Eyewitness Identifications: Does a Lack of Police Misconduct Rule Out a Due Process Claim?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a fascinating criminal procedure case that the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve during this coming term. The case, Perry v. New Hampshire, will answer the following question: If an eyewitness first identifies a perpetrator under highly suggestive circumstances that seriously compromise the reliability of the identification, but the police did not orchestrate those circumstances, should a court then exclude the identification evidence? Or, stated differently, is police misconduct necessary to the successful due process exclusion of unduly suggestive eyewitness identification evidence? Colb explains the reasons why we might—and might not—require police misconduct before this type of constitutional claim may be made, and notes that the issue here is of great importance, as empirical research has now exposed the central role of mistaken eyewitness identifications in wrongful convictions. Colb also makes a case that, in the end, the best resolution here may be to inform jurors of the problems with suggestive identifications, and then simply have them evaluate such identifications accordingly, as they do with other unreliable evidence.

The Supreme Court Agrees to Review the Constitutionality of Strip Searching All Arrestees Who Enter a Jail

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb discusses the constitutional issues raised by government strip searches, and the relevant Supreme Court precedents. She focuses, as well, on a Supreme Court case that will be decided during this coming Term, Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders. There, the Court will—for the first time since 1979—consider whether officials in a jail may strip search inmates in the absence of any individualized suspicion. Colb notes that the case will raise a key question for the Court to consider: Does the Constitution extend any protection for privacy to the people who reside in a detention facility?

Why Suppress Illegally Obtained Evidence? The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Davis v. United States

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb clarifies for readers one of the most complicated issues within the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence: the suppression of evidence that the police have obtained illegally. Colb focuses, in particular, on a case decided during the past Supreme Court term that presented a thorny question: If police follow appellate court precedent while performing a search, but the Supreme Court later reverses that very precedent, was the search legal (because appellate case law authorized it at the time) or illegal (because the Court decided later that the appeals court had erred)? In addition to discussing this issue, Colb also focuses on a number of major Court decisions in the area, to shed light on the evolution of Court doctrine.

A Disingenuous Dissent: The U.S. Supreme Court Says a Suspect’s Youth Is Relevant to Miranda Rights

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on the Supreme Court's recent, 5-4 decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina. There, the Court held that when police interrogate a suspect under the age of eighteen, the suspect’s youth bears on the question whether he was in “custody” at the time-- and was therefore entitled to hear the Miranda warnings before questioning began. Colb discusses the role of custody and interrogation in Miranda's protections, and explains the arguments that the majority and dissenting Justices marshaled to justify their respective positions. In addition, she contends that the dissenters in the case -- four conservative Justices -- essentially opined as they did due to a fundamental dislike for Miranda itself, rather than due to the wish that they cited for greater certainty and clarity in Miranda's application.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Co... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington U... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb tea... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Befo... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has w... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of L... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Pra... more

David S. Kemp
David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record... more

Anita Ramasastry
Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of... more

Ronald D. Rotunda
Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at... more