Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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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., 10/18/2021
E.g., 10/18/2021

A district attorney’s office may not be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failure to train based on a single Brady violation. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office conceded that, in prosecuting the defendant for attempted armed robbery, prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that should have been turned over under Brady. The defendant was convicted. Because of that conviction, the defendant chose not to testify in his own defense in his later murder trial. He was again convicted and spent 18 years in prison. Shortly before his scheduled execution, his investigator discovered the undisclosed evidence from his armed robbery trial. The reviewing court determined that the evidence was exculpatory and both convictions were vacated. The defendant then sued the district attorney’s office for damages under § 1983, alleging that the district attorney failed to train prosecutors adequately about their duty to produce exculpatory evidence and that the lack of training had caused the nondisclosure at issue. The jury awarded the defendant $14 million, and Fifth Circuit affirmed. Reversing, the Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Thomas, clarified that the failure-to-train claim required the defendant to prove both that (1) the district attorney, the policymaker for the district attorney’s office, was deliberately indifferent to the need to train prosecutors about their Brady disclosure obligation with respect to the type of evidence at issue and (2) the lack of training actually caused the Brady violation at issue. The Court determined that the defendant failed to prove that the district attorney was on actual or constructive notice of, and therefore deliberately indifferent to, a need for more or different Brady training. The Court noted that a pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees is “ordinarily necessary” to demonstrate deliberate indifference for purposes of failure to train. Here, however, no such pattern existed; the Court declined to adopt a theory of “single-incident liability.” Justice Scalia concurred, joined by Justice Alito, writing separately only to address several issues raised by the dissent. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. For another discussion of this opinion, see the blog post here.

 

In a per curiam opinion the Court held that a Tucson, Arizona police officer was entitled to qualified immunity with respect to his non-fatal shooting of Amy Hughes. Kisela and officer Garcia responded to a police radio report that a woman was hacking a tree with a kitchen knife. Minutes later, they were flagged down by the person who called 911; that person gave a description of the woman with the knife and said she was behaving erratically. About this time another officer arrived at the scene. Garcia saw a woman, later identified as Sharon Chadwick, standing near a car. A chain link fence was between Chadwick and the officers. The officers saw Hughes, who matched the description that had been provided, exit a house carrying a large knife. Hughes walked toward Chadwick and stopped no more than six feet from her. All three officers drew their guns. At least twice they told Hughes to drop the knife. She did not do so. Kisela shot Hughes four times. All three of the officers later said that at the time they believed Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick. The Court of Appeals held that the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Hughes, was sufficient to demonstrate that Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment. That court also held that the violation was clearly established because, in its view, the constitutional violation was obvious and because of Circuit precedent that the court perceived to be analogous. The Supreme Court granted review and reversed. The Court determined that it need not decide whether Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment when he used deadly force against Hughes, because even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred—a proposition the Court found “not at all evident”—Kisela was at least entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The Court stated:

Kisela says he shot Hughes because, although the officers themselves were in no apparent danger, he believed she was a threat to Chadwick. Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick. He was confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife and whose behavior was erratic enough to cause a concerned bystander to call 911 and then flag down Kisela and Garcia. Kisela was separated from Hughes and Chadwick by a chain-link fence; Hughes had moved to within a few feet of Chadwick; and she failed to acknowledge at least two commands to drop the knife. Those commands were loud enough that Chadwick, who was standing next to Hughes, heard them. This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.

Reversing a Ninth Circuit decision that upheld a $4 million award on a §1983 excessive force claim, the Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation doctrine,” which had allowed relief where the officers’ conduct was deemed reasonable. Deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were searching for parolee Ronnie O’Dell. A felony arrest warrant had been issued for O’Dell, who was believed to be armed and dangerous and had previously evaded capture. When law enforcement received a tip that O’Dell had been seen at a home owned by Paula Hughes, officers mapped out a plan for apprehending him. Some officers would approach the residence’s front door, while two Deputies--Conley and Pederson--would search the rear of the property and cover the back door. At the time, officers knew that a man named Angel Mendez lived in the backyard of the Hughes home with a woman named Jennifer Garcia. Upon arriving at the home, three officers knocked on the front door. Meanwhile, Conley and Pederson, with guns drawn, searched the rear. The property included a shack made of wood and plywood, occupied by Mendez and Garcia. Conley and Pederson, without a warrant and without knocking and announcing their presence, opened the door to the shack. Conley saw Mendez with a gun, later determined to be a BB gun Mendez used on rats and other pests, and yelled, “Gun!” Deputies immediately opened fire, discharging 15 rounds. Mendez and Garcia were shot multiple times and suffered severe injuries; Mendez’s right leg was later amputated below the knee. O’Dell was never found on the property. Mendez and Garcia filed a §1983 suit, alleging three Fourth Amendment claims: that the deputies executed an unreasonable search by entering the shack without a warrant; that the deputies performed an unreasonable search because they failed to announce their presence before entering the shack; and that the deputies effected an unreasonable seizure by deploying excessive force in opening fire after entering the shack. With respect to the excessive force claim, the trial court found that the deputies’ use of force was reasonable “given their belief that a man was holding a firearm rifle threatening their lives.” However, the trial court applied the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule. Under that rule, “an officer’s otherwise reasonable (and lawful) defensive use of force is unreasonable as a matter of law, if the officer intentionally or recklessly provoked a violent response, and that provocation is an independent constitutional violation.” Based on this rule, the District Court held the deputies liable for excessive force and awarded respondents around $4 million in damages. The Ninth Circuit did not disagree with the conclusion that the shooting was reasonable; instead, like the District Court, it applied the provocation rule and held the deputies liable for the use of force on the theory that they had intentionally and recklessly brought about the shooting by entering the shack without a warrant in violation of clearly established law. The Court of Appeals also adopted an alternative rationale for its judgment, holding that “basic notions of proximate cause” would support liability even without the provocation rule because it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the officers would meet an armed homeowner when they “barged into the shack unannounced.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. The Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule was “incompatible” with the Court’s excessive force jurisprudence, stating that the rule’s “fundamental flaw is that it uses another constitutional violation to manufacture an excessive force claim where one would not otherwise exist.” The Court went on to reject the Ninth Circuit’s proximate cause justification, finding that analysis, “like the provocation rule, conflated distinct Fourth Amendment claims and required only a murky causal link between the warrantless entry and the injuries attributed to it.”

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