Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.


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E.g., 06/22/2024
E.g., 06/22/2024

Confronting the question in a habeas case of whether the holding in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___ (2020) that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offenses applies retroactively under the framework of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), the Court held that while Ramos announced a “new” procedural rule it was not a “watershed rule” that applies retroactively. The Court further held that the Teague exception for watershed rules is moribund as no new rules of criminal procedure can satisfy the “purported exception” for watershed rules.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh first conducted the traditional analysis of retroactivity under Teague, finding that while Ramos announced a new procedural rule that was “momentous and consequential” it was not a “watershed” rule and therefore did not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review.  Characterizing the “purported exception” for watershed rules as an “empty promise,” the Court said that “[c]ontinuing to articulate a theoretical exception that never actually applies in practice offers false hope to defendants, distorts the law, misleads judges, and wastes the resources of defense counsel, prosecutors, and courts.”  The Court said it was time to say explicitly what had been apparent for years: “New procedural rules do not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.” 

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, concurred in full but wrote separately to explain that the case could have been resolved under the AEDPA because a Louisiana state court had considered Edwards’s argument that he was entitled to a unanimous jury verdict and had reasonably relied on federal law as it was prior to Ramos in rejecting that claim.  Thomas explained that in such circumstances the AEDPA directs that a writ of habeas corpus shall not be granted.

Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred by canvassing the history of the writ of habeas corpus, explaining developments in the law in the middle of the twentieth century leading to Teague, and expressing his agreement with the decision to explicitly state that the “watershed rule” exception was illusory.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, stating her view that the holding of Ramos “fits to a tee Teague’s description of a watershed procedural rule” and criticizing the majority’s overturning of the watershed exception as following “none of the usual rules of stare decisis.”

Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), holding that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), was void for vagueness was a substantive decision that is retroactive in cases on collateral review.

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ___ (2012) (holding that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole absent consideration of the juvenile’s special circumstances), applied retroactively to juvenile offenders whose convictions and sentences were final when Miller was decided. A jury found defendant Montgomery guilty of murdering a deputy sheriff, returning a verdict of “guilty without capital punishment.” Under Louisiana law, this verdict required the trial court to impose a sentence of life without parole. Because the sentence was automatic upon the jury’s verdict, Montgomery had no opportunity to present mitigation evidence to justify a less severe sentence. That evidence might have included Montgomery’s young age at the time of the crime; expert testimony regarding his limited capacity for foresight, self-discipline, and judgment; and his potential for rehabilitation. After the Court decided Miller, Montgomery, now 69 years old, sought collateral review of his mandatory life without parole sentence. Montgomery’s claim was rejected by Louisiana courts on grounds the Miller was not retroactive. The Supreme Court granted review and reversed. The Court began its analysis by concluding that it had jurisdiction to address the issue. Although the parties agreed that the Court had jurisdiction to decide this case, the Court appointed an amicus curiae to brief and argue the position that the Court lacked jurisdiction; amicus counsel argued that the state court decision does not implicate a federal right because it only determined the scope of relief available in a particular type of state proceeding, which is a question of state law. On the issue of jurisdiction, the Court held:

[W]hen a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule. Teague’s conclusion establishing the retroactivity of new substantive rules is best understood as resting upon constitutional premises. That constitutional command is, like all federal law, binding on state courts. This holding is limited to Teague’s first exception for substantive rules; the constitutional status of Teague’s exception for watershed rules of procedure need not be addressed here.

Turning to the issue of retroactivity, the Court held that Miller announced a new substantive rule that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. The Court explained: “Miller … did more than require a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life without parole; it established that the penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of ‘the distinctive attributes of youth.’” The Court continued:

Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity.’” Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but “‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,’” it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for “a class of defendants because of their status”—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. As a result, Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law. Like other substantive rules, Miller is retroactive because it “‘necessarily carr[ies] a significant risk that a defendant’”—here, the vast majority of juvenile offenders—“‘faces a punishment that the law cannot impose upon him.’” (citations omitted).

The Court went on to reject the State’s argument that Miller is procedural because it did not place any punishment beyond the State’s power to impose, instead requiring sentencing courts to take children’s age into account before sentencing them to life in prison. The Court noted: “Miller did bar life without parole, however, for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” It explained: “Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.” Noting that Miller “has a procedural component,” the Court explained that “a procedural requirement necessary to implement a substantive guarantee” cannot transform a substantive rule into a procedural one. It continued, noting that the hearing where “youth and its attendant characteristics” are considered as sentencing factors “does not replace but rather gives effect to Miller’s substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.”

In this federal habeas case, the Court held that the Michigan Court of Appeals did not unreasonably apply clearly established federal law when it retroactively applied to the defendant’s case a state supreme court decision rejecting the diminished capacity defense for first-degree murder. The defendant was convicted in Michigan state court of first-degree murder. When the crime was committed, Michigan’s intermediate appellate court had repeatedly recognized diminished capacity as a defense negating the mens rea required for first-degree murder. However, by the time the defendant’s case was tried, the Michigan Supreme Court, in a decision called Carpenter, had rejected the defense and he thus was precluded from offering it at trial. In the Michigan Court of Appeals, the defendant unsuccessfully argued that retroactive application of Carpenter denied him due process of law. He then sought federal habeas relief. The Court noted that judicial changes to a common law doctrine of criminal law violate the principle of fair warning and thus must not be given retroactive effect only where the change “is unexpected and indefensible by reference to the law which had been expressed prior to the conduct in issue.” Slip Op. at 7 (quotation omitted). Judged against this standard, the Court held that the Michigan court’s rejection of the defendant’s due process claim was not an unreasonable application of federal law.

Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U. S. 356 (2010) (criminal defense attorneys must inform non-citizen clients of the risks of deportation arising from guilty pleas), does not apply retroactively to cases that became final before Padilla was decided. Applying the Teague retroactivity analysis, the Court held that Padilla announced a new rule. The defendant did not assert that Padilla fell within either of the Teague test’s exceptions to the anti-retroactivity rule. 

The court reversed the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for reconsideration and motion for appropriate relief (MAR), holding that the requirement that counsel advise the defendant of the immigration consequences of a plea agreement established by Padilla does not apply retroactively. The defendant pled no contest to a drug charge in 1997. In 2015 the defendant asserted a MAR claim under Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), that he was not informed of the impact his conviction would have on his immigration status, particularly the risk of deportation. The trial court initially denied the MAR but subsequently granted a motion to reconsider and entered an order granting the MAR. Reversing, the court noted that it had previously decided, in State v. Alshaif, 219 N.C. App. 162 (2012), that Padilla does not apply retroactively.

The court held that Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (Mar. 31, 2010), dealing with ineffective assistance of counsel in connection with advice regarding the immigration consequences of a plea, did not apply retroactively to the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief. Applying Teague retroactivity analysis, the court held that Padilla announced a new procedural rule but that the rule was not a watershed one. [Author’s note: for the law on retroactivity and the Teague test, see my paper here]

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