Recent U.S. Supreme Court Criminal Law Decisions

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by | July 1, 2015

Following the final few Supreme Court opinions of the term, here is a recap of some of the term’s criminal law decisions.

The residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause.

Johnson v. United States, — S.Ct. —, No. 13-7120 (June 26, 2015).

In Johnson, the defendant pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and the government asked for an increased sentence under the residual clause of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  This clause imposes an increased sentence on individuals who have three or more prior convictions for a “violent felony,” which is defined as a felony involving “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”  The defendant argued that one of the prior convictions used to increase his sentence, possession of a short-barreled shotgun, was not a “violent felony” under the ACCA.  The district court disagreed and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.  The Supreme Court, rather than limit itself to the question of whether the possession crime constituted a “violent crime,” overruled its own precedent and held that imposition of an increased sentence pursuant to the residual clause of the ACCA violates the due process clause.

Young child’s statements to his teacher regarding the source of the child’s injuries are not testimonial under the Confrontation Clause.

Ohio v. Clark, — S.Ct. —, No. 13-1352 (June 18, 2015).

In this child abuse case the defendant’s 3-year-old son had marks on his face and body when he went to preschool. When his teachers asked the child “who did this?” the child implicated the defendant. The child’s statements to his teachers were introduced at trial as evidence of guilt and the child did not testify. The defendant was convicted and he appealed arguing admission of the child’s statements at trial violated the Confrontation Clause.

When his appeal reached the Supreme Court it held that under the primary purpose test the statements were non-testimonial and therefore did not violate the Confrontation Clause. The Court reasoned that the first objective of the conversation between the child and his teachers was to protect the child and not for the primary purpose of creating evidence for prosecution. Notably, the Court specifically stated that statements to individuals who are not law enforcement officers are “much less likely” to be testimonial. Furthermore, “[s]tatements by very young children will rarely, if ever, implicate the Confrontation Clause.”

Absent reasonable suspicion, police cannot extend completed traffic stop to conduct dog sniff.

Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __ (April 21, 2015).

In Rodriguez, a police officer had completed a traffic stop, including issuing a warning ticket and returning documents to the driver, when he asked the driver for permission to walk a police dog around the vehicle.  When the driver said no, the officer instructed him to get out of his car and wait for a second officer.  The driver complied.  When the other officer arrived the first officer got his dog and walked it around the car.  The dog alerted to the presence of drugs, which the officer found during his subsequent search of the car.  The driver was charged and his motion to suppress was denied.

The Court held that the Fourth Amendment is violated when, absent reasonable suspicion, a police officer extends and an otherwise completed traffic stop for the purpose of conducting a dog sniff.  The Court acknowledged that during a routine traffic stop, in addition to determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s traffic mission of roadway safety includes making “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop.”  Such inquiries include checking the driver’s license, determining whether the driver has outstanding warrants, and inspecting the vehicle’s registration and proof of insurance.   In contrast, a dog sniff is aimed at uncovering evidence of a crime and is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission.

The Court specifically rejected the Eighth Circuit’s prior application of the de minimus rule to this case.  The Supreme Court had applied the de minimus rule in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977) (per curiam) to conclude that the government’s “legitimate and weighty” interest in officer safety that outweighed the “de minimis” additional intrusion of requiring a lawfully-stopped driver to exit the vehicle.  In distinguishing Mimms, the Court explained that officers may take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete their mission safely.  However, on-scene investigation into other crimes and safety measures taken to facilitate investigation other crimes detours from that mission.  Therefore, the de minimus rule does not apply here.