Category Archives: psa

Fernandez v. California: remove the objector, won’t be no objection

What problem is?

What problem is?

I know that a majority of my readers are lawyers, but there are a fair number of you who aren’t and so from time to time I like to reproduce stirring pieces of legal opinions that explain so eloquently the protections that we have and the reasons we have them. The opening of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent yesterday in Fernandez v. California [PDF - pg 23 onwards] provides such an opportunity, so I reproduce a large quote from it:

The Fourth Amendment guarantees to the people “[t]he right … to be secure in their . . . houses . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Warrants to search premises, the Amendment further instructs, shall issue only when authorized by a neutral magistrate upon a showing of “probable cause” to believe criminal activity has occurred or is afoot. This Court has read these complementary provisions to convey that, “whenever practicable, [the police must] obtain advance judicial approval of searches and seizures through the warrant procedure.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, 20 (1968). The warrant requirement, Justice Jackson observed, ranks among the “fundamental distinctions between our form of government, where officers are under the law, and the police state where they are the law.” Johnson v. United States, 333 U. S. 10, 17 (1948)1. The Court has accordingly declared warrantless searches, in the main, “per se unreasonable.” Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, 390 (1978).

In its zeal to diminish Randolph, today’s decision overlooks the warrant requirement’s venerable role as the “bulwark of Fourth Amendment protection.” Franks v. Delaware, 438 U. S. 154, 164 (1978). Reducing Randolph to a “narrow exception,” the Court declares the main rule to be that “consent by one resident of jointly occupied  premises is generally sufficient to justify a warrantless  search.” Ante, at 7. That declaration has it backwards, for consent searches themselves are a “‘jealously and carefully drawn’ exception” to “the Fourth Amendment rule  ordinarily prohibiting the warrantless entry of a person’s  house as unreasonable per se.” Randolph, 547 U. S., at 109 (quoting Jones v. United States, 357 U. S. 493, 499 (1958)). See also Jardines, 569 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 4)  (“[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is  first among equals. At the Amendment’s ‘very core’ stands   ‘the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there  be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.’”); Payton v. New York, 445 U. S. 573, 585 (1980)(“[T]he physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which  . . . the Fourth Amendment is directed.”

That should explain to you that in our country, under our system of laws, there is nothing more sacred than the right to be left alone in one’s home and that there is an almost absolute prohibition on the police entering your home without a warrant. One of the exceptions to that rule is if you consent. If you give the police permission to enter, then they don’t need a warrant.

How do you solve a problem like jailhouse informants?

Every defense attorney knows that jailhouse informants are the scourge of confession cases: the defendant who is too clever by half, who refuses to talk to cops and invokes his right to a lawyer,  but brags to his cellie about how he “totally did that punk in”. Despite jailhouse informants being the cause of 15% of wrongful convictions, juries still lap that stuff up. For some reason, we as humans cannot escape the psychological pull of a confession – purported or otherwise.

Since trial lawyering is some parts art, some parts science and mostly blind dumb luck, trial lawyers have forever come up with artful ways of countering the appeal of a jailhouse informant and the defendant’s alleged confession: expert testimony, artfully crafted jury instructions and fearsome cross-examination.

But how does the science match up? Does it support any of these methods by convincing jurors to disregard the alleged confession?

Defining the role of appellate courts

Dan Klau points, rather diplomatically, to a Connecticut Supreme Court opinion issued today [PDF] which he lost. It’s a civil case, but what sucked me in was his description of the issues in the case, which fits right in with the theme of complaints that I have with this present Supreme Court:

In particular, it will tell us whether a majority of the Court believes that the proper role of an appellate court is to decide the issues that the parties have raised and argued–and only those issues–or, alternatively, whether the Court believes that it is appropriate to decide cases based on issues that appellate judges raise on their own initiative. In short, can and should appellate courts raise and decide unpreserved issues sua sponte?

Today, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that yes, it could very well decide appeals based on issues that it raised on its own and that no one thought of at the trial level and that weren’t preserved or properly briefed or that the trial judge had no opportunity to consider.

Okay, that’ll be the last of the snark for today, because it actually is a really interesting and important opinion written by Justice Palmer.

The issues were divided up by the Court as follows:

Friendly reminder to law enforcement: stop listening to attorney-client conversations

It is, of course, an undeniable fundamental right that communications between a criminal defendant and his or her attorney should be utterly confidential1 and that, under no circumstances, should the prosecution get access to the content of those conversations.

Having said that, what is to be done if a prosecutor gets hold of confidential communications or learns of the substance of these conversations? Must there be an automatic reversal? Or this “fundamental right” to be rendered meaningless yet again, subjected to the legal fiction of harmlessness.

That is the question confronted by the Supreme Court of Washington in State v. Fuentes. In Fuentes, after the defendant was convicted by a jury, but during the pendency of post-trial motions, the prosecutor asked the investigating detective to listen to the defendant’s phone calls from jail to determine if there was any witness tampering going on2:

Hang on a minute, I need to indict someone

I Ham Sandwich

Would you like due process violations as your side or just some plain old cocaine?1

You know, when people usually say “hang on a minute”, you know that it’s going to take longer than a minute. It never takes a minute. Unless you’re a grand jury in North Carolina, that is. From the Charlotte Observer, via Andrew Cohen2:

During a single four-hour workday last week, a Mecklenburg County grand jury heard 276 cases and handed down 276 indictments.

That means the 18 jurors heard evidence, asked questions, weighed whether the charges merit a trial, then voted on the indictments – all at the average rate of one case every 52 seconds.

You read something like that and you just have to laugh. You have to laugh because it’s so improbable and so absurd that it must be true and that it can only happen here, in these United States of America, the best country in the world with the best justice system in the world, because by God, we hate criminals.

In the time that it’s taken you to read this post so far, 3 people have gotten indicted by that careful, deliberative North Carolina grand jury. And another one. And another one. Mayhem!

There is no greater example of grand juries outliving their utility. It is inescapable that this grand jury did not perform its time honored-function of, as Andrew Cohen puts it:

Virginia prosecutors will do just about anything to execute Justin Wolfe (updated)

While everyone is enjoying that ridiculous lawyer ad, Justin Wolfe spent 10 years on death row, convicted of a murder-for-hire and sentenced to death. After the state courts upheld his conviction and dismissed his claims, he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court. A federal judge reversed his conviction and found that he was actually innocent of the crime [PDF]1:

The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of a single key witness, Owen Barber, who   admitted that he shot and killed the victim but told the jury that he had done so at petitioner’s behest. It was later discovered that prosecutors intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence that could have been used to impeach that testimony and prove   petitioner’s innocence.

In federal habeas proceedings, Barber fully recanted his trial testimony and the district court found that petitioner is actually innocent under Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995). It based that determination on an affidavit Barber had executed, swearing that petitioner had nothing to do with the murder; corroborating declarations from other witnesses to whom Barber had admitted his perjury at various times; and other significant evidence.

The intentionally withheld evidence was a police report about a meeting with Barber,

which show[ed] that before Barber said anything to the police about the crime,   Commonwealth officials threatened Barber with the death penalty if he did not testify that petitioner had hired him to commit the murder. Pet. App. 147a. The district court then held an evidentiary hearing at which Barber made clear that he testified falsely at trial because of the prosecutors’ threats. He also testified that petitioner had no involvement in the murder.

The biggest problem with Brady, as has been repeatedly stated, is the lack of any enforcement mechanism. Prosecutors are left to their own good will to determine what, if anything, is “exculpatory” and constitutionally required to be turned over.

But the wretched scum who prosecuted Wolfe are quite another breed:

Should lawyers be disciplined for criticism of judges?

Lawyers are a touchy bunch. We have egos and we have inflated senses of self-worth. And it only gets worse when we become judges. No one’s ever gotten their way pissing off a judge.1 That doesn’t mean that no one talks shit about judges and some judges are more frequently talked-shit-about than other judges. But does there come a time when criticizing a judge goes too far?

Or, put another way, should lawyers be permitted to criticize judges in either public or private and not be sanctioned or found in violation of rules of ethical conduct?

Two recent stories brought this to mind: first, in Indiana, lawyer and blogger Paul Ogden received a one-year suspension [PDF] for private emails in which he criticized a judge and that judge’s handling of a case. The emails were turned over to the judge, who then demanded an apology. None was forthcoming; instead Ogden provided the judge with an itemized list of things he did wrong. Ogden then maintained that he has a First Amendment right to criticize public officials like judges and the hearing officer seemingly used that insistence to find that Ogden has limited insight into his behavior and recommend an elevated punishment:

“As a result of the statements made by (Ogden) about Judge Coleman, which statements were false or made with reckless disregard for truth, (Ogden) caused serious injury to the public, Judge Coleman, the judicial system and the legal profession,” York wrote.

York said in his report that he “cannot stress enough the conclusion that (Ogden) has a profound lack of both insight into his own conduct and lack of respect for those who disagree with him.”

Meanwhile, here in Connecticut, a four-month suspension of criminal defense attorney Rob Serafinowicz was just put on hold [PDF] pending his appeal. Serafinowicz, known for his brash style, found himself on the courthouse steps one day two years ago, saying unfavorable things about a judge he had appeared in front of and against whom he’d filed a judicial ethics complaint. Among other things he said “he’s a disgrace to the bench” “has favorites” and doesn’t give people “a fair shake”, “he’s never tried a case in his life” and then made some hollow assertions that the judge violated the code of judicial ethics. Serafinowicz has the habit of engaging in some bluster, which you can see in the video.

Serafinowicz eventually agreed that he violated two of the rules of professional conduct, Rule 8.2 and 8.4 [PDF]:

Rule 8.2. Judicial and Legal Officials

(a) A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disre­gard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifi­cations or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer, or of a candidate for election or appointment to judicial or legal office.

Rule 8.4. Misconduct

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

(4) Engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice;

I write about this not because I think that Ogden or Serafinowicz specifically should be given the freedom to say what they did2 but because it impacts me personally and the judicial system as a whole.

As regular readers will know, I frequently take to these pages to criticize judges, prosecutors and judicial opinions. While I reserve my comments to the “their policies are asinine and idiotic and they write like a bunch of peons” rather than “Justice Smith is an unmitigated idiot” variety of criticism, it is not inconceivable that one day someone might view the former as a violation of a rule of professional conduct as being “prejudicial to the administration of justice”, whatever that means.

And as much as I’d like my response to be “I’m out of order? You’re out of order!”, having the knowledge of such timely pop culture quips will hardly save my mortgage and legal career if public criticism of matters of public importance is so circumscribed simply because the speaker happens to also be a lawyer and thus has some greater duty of care assigned to him.

The law is a morass. Lay people cannot be trusted or counted upon to either care or care enough to know when the law is acting like an ass. The only ones with the knowledge to know and to say something about it are the participants in the system: the whistleblowers, if you will.

As if that weren’t enough, to police private statements like Odgen’s seems a step too far in the administration of justice.

But we are all lawyers. The irony is lost on us.