2011 in Review: 7 key decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court sets the minimal constitutional standard to be applied, state courts are free to provide broader constitutional protections under state constitutions
This past year the U.S. Supreme Court decided several cases of significance to our nation’s law enforcement community. Of these cases, there are three that focus on labor and employment issues — an area not usually subject to a review of key decisions for law enforcement, but these cases are important to mention since employment related concerns are becoming increasingly significant to officers’ livelihoods.
The most significant of the criminal procedure cases decided this year were a Fifth Amendment Miranda related case from North Carolina dealing with the questioning of a juvenile suspect and a Fourth Amendment case from Kentucky consolidating the rule with regard to police-created exigencies.
Two other cases provide further exposition from the Court on the full range of the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause as a trial right and the extent to which the right will be applied.
J.D.B. v. North Carolina, No. 09-11121, decided June 16, 2011
At the trial court, a motion by J.D.B.’s attorney to suppress the statements — based on an argument of custody and lack of Miranda warnings plus an assertion of involuntariness — was denied. J.D.B. was found to be delinquent. His appeals to the North Carolina Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court were declined. The issue on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was whether a child’s age is a proper consideration for custody analysis so as to trigger the Miranda requirement? The Court had previously held that custody was purely an objective determination to be initially decided based on the factual circumstances surrounding the allegation of a custodial setting. The standard was then one of determining whether a reasonable person would have felt he or she was “at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.”1
In this case, the Court infused a new standard for consideration when police officers question juveniles and determining whether or not a juvenile is in custody for Miranda purposes. The officer must consider the age of the suspect in making a custody analysis, that is, whether or not the child would consider himself free to leave the interview. The Court said such reasoning was part of the objective inquiry relating to custody.
However, as indicated by Justice Alito in his dissent and subsequent commentators, the decision in J.D.B. v. North Carolina imposes a subjective consideration into the custody analysis for Miranda purposes. This is a decision that, depending on state statutes and department policies for handling juvenile cases, may not have any short term impact for police officers but it may have longer term effect in the overall custody analysis for Miranda purposes. The surest way to avoid any subsequent challenges to the statements of juvenile suspects is to provide Miranda warnings when there is any question as to whether an interview is custodial or otherwise.
Kentucky v. King, No. 09-1272, decided May 16, 2011
The officers banged loudly on the door and announced themselves as police officers. They then heard loud noises coming from the apartment and the sound of furniture being moved. Based on their belief that drug evidence was being destroyed, the officers forcibly entered the apartment citing exigent circumstances. Crack cocaine, cash, and drug paraphernalia were found in the apartment. The issue before the Court was whether the exigency rule applies for a situation when the police create the exigency by knocking on the door and announcing their presence thereby causing “the occupants to attempt to destroy evidence.”
The Kentucky Supreme Court found that this was a police-created exigency which the officers should have foreseen. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Kentucky’s interpretation of the rule:
The Court relied on the Fourth Amendment standard of the reasonableness of the officers’ actions and the general lawfulness of their purpose in entering the apartment thus rejecting the “police-created emergency” exception to the exigency rule.
Bullcoming v. New Mexico, No. 09-10876, decided June 23, 2011
In Crawford v. Washington3 the Court said the Confrontation Clause allowed testimonial statements of witnesses absent from trial only if the declarant is unavailable and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the unavailable witness. In a subsequent case, Melendenz-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the Court held that a lab report was testimonial in nature and refused to recognize a forensic evidence exception to the holding in Crawford. The prosecution in Melendez-Diaz involved a lab report on drug evidence and the Court said the prosecution could not introduce the report without either a stipulation between the parties or the presence of a live witness to testify as to the contents of the report’s findings.
The evidence against Bullcoming was a lab report certifying his blood-alcohol content level. The report was prepared and certified by a lab analyst who performed the tests on Bullcoming’s blood sample but who was not called to testify at the trial. The prosecution called another analyst to introduce the report into evidence however this witness was not familiar with the tests conducted on Bullcoming’s blood sample. The Court found the lab report to be testimonial in nature and did not satisfy Bullcoming’s Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause right by having a substitute witness testify. This case was but another in a continuing line of U.S. Supreme Court cases to address a defendant’s right of confrontation at trial.
Michigan v. Bryant, No. 09-150, decided February 28, 2011
This argument was eventually persuasive to the Michigan Supreme Court and the second-degree murder conviction was reversed.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision by Justice Sotomayor, the Michigan Supreme Court’s order was vacated and the case remanded back to the state court based on a determination that the “primary purpose of the interrogation” was to “enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency.”4
Because the primary purpose of the police questioning related to an ongoing emergency, the Court found that the victim’s statements were not testimonial. Otherwise, in keeping with the Court’s Crawford v. Washington decision, the defendant would be entitled to confront the maker of the testimonial statement. The bizarre aspect of this case — which many of you may question — is why was this even an issue, since the declaration would seem to be a hearsay exception as a dying declaration or excited utterance?
This particular issue was not preserved for review before the Court and had not been addressed by the Michigan Supreme Court. The trial court had admitted the statement as an excited utterance without addressing whether it was a dying declaration, and this determination was made prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Bryant provided two rules of inquiry for the admissibility of statements where there is a Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause claim:
Duryea v. Guarnieri, No. 09-1476, decided June 20, 2011
In Duryea, the respondent — Guarnieri — was fired as police chief of the Borough of Duryea. He was reinstated after he filed a union grievance but upon reinstatement the employer issued directives on how he was to perform his duties. This led to his filing a second grievance and the matter being resolved by an arbitrator who partially sided with Guarnieri. A civil rights lawsuit under 42 USC §1983 was subsequently filed by Guarnieri based on a violation of his First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances. The directives he claimed were submitted as retaliation for his filing the first grievance which won back his job. Guarnieri then amended his complaint to add a claim that the employer violated the Petition Clause of the Constitution based on a denial of overtime time which was claimed as retaliation for his filing the §1983 lawsuit.
A jury trial resulted in a verdict for Guarnieri, which was upheld by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Borough of Duryea appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was successful. In keeping with its prior decisions in Connick v. Myers1 and Pickering v. Board of Education7 the Court held that a public employee suing an employer under the First Amendment has to show he spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern, then the courts will balance an employee’s speech rights against the government’s interest in promoting the efficiency and effectiveness of its public services. The Court said that the petition rights alleged to be violated are closely connected to the rights of speech thereby requiring a similar analysis. The petition filed by Guarnieri over an internal job related grievance was not a matter of public concern or of any other social or political significance beyond that of his employment.
Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., No. 09-834, decided March 22, 2011
In Kasten, the Court had to decide if the oral complaint made by the employee, Kevin Kasten, to his employer regarding the placement of timeclocks satisfied the statutory requirement that an aggrieved employee “filed any complaint” pursuant to the Act. The specific complaint from Kasten was that the employer’s placement of timeclocks in an area between where employees changed into and out of protective gear and their assigned work locations deprived the employees of credited time at work.
Kasten claims that he was discharged because of his oral complaints to his employer relating to the placement of the timeclocks. Whether or not he could invoke the protections of the Act’s anti-retaliation provision depended on the Court’s interpretation of the Act and the meaning of “filed any complaint”, which the employer argued applied only to written complaints made to the employer. In a 6-2 decision — with Justice Kagan taking no part in the case — the Court determined that the statutory term “filed any complaint” includes oral as well as written complaints pursuant to the Act.
Since there have been many claims over the past decade involving police officers and FLSA claims, this decision cannot be overlooked. Officers have won compensation claims under the FLSA for maintenance and care of equipment, training, work-related paperwork and other compensable activities related to their job. Kasten furnishes a definitive answer to what it means to file a complaint under the FLSA, providing protection to those employees who make an oral complaint and feel retaliated against as a result.
Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291, decided January 24, 2011
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, found that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows for third-party retaliation claims against an employer. Any conduct that could have the effect of preventing an employee from filing or providing evidentiary support of EEO complaints is prohibited by Title VII. The Court reasoned that this includes employer retaliation against third-parties closely related to the original EEO complainant — such as the fiancée in this case — yet the Court did not define which relationships satisfy this standard, it only stated this was an objective standard for courts to follow in determining third-party complaints.
Looking Ahead to 2012
As always, it must be remembered that the U.S. Supreme Court sets the minimal constitutional standard to be applied, state courts are free to provide broader constitutional protections under state constitutions. Criminal procedure related material should be reviewed at the state level. Any variations between the standard enunciated by the Court and state appellate courts should be noted and the broader state procedure followed since this will be the controlling law of the jurisdiction. A case such as J.D.B. v. North Carolina will likely have little impact in most states which already have a significant body of case law and specific statutory directives dealing with the interviewing of juvenile suspects.
Above all, as the New Year approaches, officer safety remains the utmost concern and the memories of the fallen should never fade. I wish you all happy holidays and a safe and secure New Year.
1 Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99 (1995) 2 Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. __ (2011) 3 3 541 U.S. 36 (2004) 4 Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. at 822 (2006) 5 547 U.S. 410 (2006) 6 461 U.S. 138 (1983) 7 391 U.S. 563 (1968)
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