Criminal Justice Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, 2006 Term

AuthorJames L. Maddex
Published date01 December 2007
Date01 December 2007
Subject MatterArticles
CJR310899.qxd Criminal Justice Review
Recent Legal Developments
Volume 32 Number 4
December 2007 485-506
© 2007 Georgia State University
Criminal Justice Decisions of the
Research Foundation, Inc.
Supreme Court of the
hosted at
United States, 2006 Term
James L. Maddex Jr.
Georgia State University, Atlanta
On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court announced the last 3 of its 68 signed-opinion
decisions of the 2006 term. Of this total, 22 raised at least one criminal justice issue, in
comparison to 30 such cases from the 2005 term’s total of 69 decisions. The latter portion
of last term was marked by high-profile decisions that reflected sharp divisions on the
Court, not only in the criminal justice area but also in cases that addressed issues concerning
voluntary school integration plans, so-called partial birth abortions, campaign finance, and
the scope of First Amendment liberties enjoyed by high school students. Altogether, 24 of
the term’s 68 signed-opinion decisions produced a five-to-four split among the justices.
Most of the five-to-four decisions in criminal justice cases presented issues that in some
way entailed death penalty jurisprudence. On the other hand, unanimity was achieved in a
major Fourth Amendment decision that addressed the rights of vehicle passengers, and in
another case that placed limitations on the lower federal courts’ prerogatives to expand on
congressional efforts to curtail the volume of civil rights suits brought by prison inmates.
In contrast to the previous term’s 5 decisions that addressed important doctrinal issues
pertaining to the Fourth Amendment, in the 2006 term there were only 2 such cases, and in
one of those the issue was ancillary to the resolution of a procedural matter that arose in the
course of federal civil rights litigation. In fact, last term there was relatively little attempt by
the Court to add significantly to the body of constitutional law that governs criminal proce-
dure outside of some of the decisions in the area of sentencing. Approximately one half of
the Court’s criminal justice output addressed sentencing issues, assigning to that category
a broad definition, and by far the majority of these arose in the capital sentencing context.
In many of its sentencing decisions, as well in other areas, the Court was much occupied with
questions of statutory interpretation and the corollary application to lower court rulings of
the gatekeeping provisions contained in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of
1996. In 9 of the 22 criminal justice decisions, the Court found occasion to apply that statute,
in which Congress adopted measures that were designed to police the volume of habeas
corpus applications filed in federal district courts by persons who had been convicted at the
state level.
Because of the wide array of the subject matter and the procedural posture in which
many of last term’s cases were framed, there has been no attempt to group the following
summaries under topical headings. In general, but far from invariably, the summaries are
presented in a sequence that reflects the passage of a criminal case through the system,
from Fourth Amendment issues through the correctional setting. The only source referenced
in citing and quoting passages from principal cases is the Supreme Court Reporter.
Statutory citations appear only in the body of the text.

Criminal Justice Review
Brendlin v. California (2007)
Brendlin was the only passenger in an automobile that was being driven by Simeroth
when police officers pulled the vehicle over to check what they already had reason to
believe was a valid temporary operating permit that was visible without stopping the car.
After the car had been stopped, the officers quickly determined that Brendlin, the sole pas-
senger, was a parolee who was the subject of an outstanding violator’s warrant. As soon as
police backup arrived, Brendlin was ordered to exit the vehicle and was placed under arrest.
He was searched incident to that arrest, as was Simeroth’s car. The officers found suspected
contraband drugs and drug-related items, and Brendlin was charged with the possession
and manufacture of methamphetamine. He moved to suppress the incriminating evidence
on the ground that when the Fourth Amendment was violated by what the state agreed was
an arbitrary stop of Simeroth’s car, there also occurred an unconstitutional seizure of
Brendlin. Therefore, he contended, the evidence that the state sought to introduce against
him was tainted by that violation. The defendant did not additionally base his motion on
the illegal search of another’s vehicle, possibly because such a claim would have been
unavailing in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Rakas v. Illinois (1978), which lim-
ited the standing of a vehicle’s mere passengers to challenge such a search. The trial court
denied Brendlin’s motion, and he entered a guilty plea, although he reserved and exercised
his right to pursue the matter on appeal. The California Supreme Court rejected Brendlin’s
claim, reasoning in part that in spite of the illegal stop of the car, the subject could not be
said to have been seized by that act alone. The court ruled that the seizure of Brendlin’s per-
son occurred when he was arrested a short time later based on the probable cause related to
his parole status.
The Supreme Court of the United States unanimously reversed the court of appeals. Justice
Souter, writing the opinion, noted the inconsistency of the state court’s ruling with Supreme
Court dicta in at least five prior cases to the effect that passengers in a vehicle are seized when
it is stopped by the police. This was also the position taken without exception by federal
courts of appeals and by appellate courts in all but three states in which the matter had been
decided, including California. Justice Souter invoked the test that had been announced in a
1980 Supreme Court decision: “A seizure occurs if ‘in view of all of the circumstances sur-
rounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave’”
(127 S.Ct. at 2405, quoting United States v. Mendenhall, 1980, at 554). The Court then
applied this test to the present case, stating that “societal expectations” pointed to only one
reasonable reading of the situation in which Brendlin found himself:
We think that in these circumstances any reasonable passenger would have understood the
police officers to be exercising control to the point that no one in the car was free to depart
without police permission. . . .
An officer who orders one particular car to pull over acts with an implicit claim of right
based on fault of some sort, and a sensible person would not expect a police officer to allow
people to come and go freely from the physical focal point of an investigation into faulty
behavior or wrongdoing. . . . Even when the wrongdoing is only bad driving, the passenger
will expect to be subject to some scrutiny, and his attempt to leave the scene would be so obvi-
ously likely to prompt an objection from the officer that no passenger would feel free to leave
in the first place. (127 S.Ct. at 2406-2407)

Maddex / Recent Legal Developments
Justice Souter noted the potential for abuse if a different approach were to be adopted:
The fact that evidence uncovered as a result of an arbitrary traffic stop would still be admissible
against any passengers would be a powerful incentive to run the kind of “roving patrols” that would
still violate the driver’s Fourth Amendment right. (127 S.Ct. at 2410, internal citation omitted)
Scott v. Harris (2007)
In this case, the Supreme Court assessed the Fourth Amendment reasonableness of the
actions of Scott, a law enforcement officer, who forced Harris, a speeding 19-year-old
motorist, off the road, causing him to wreck and sustain injuries that rendered him a quad-
riplegic. Both parties agreed that the officer’s actions amounted to a “seizure” for purposes of
the Fourth Amendment. The wreck ended a 10-mile, high-speed pursuit, involving multiple
police units, late at night on a two-lane road. Harris instituted a federal civil rights suit
under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against his pursuers, alleging that they had violated the Fourth
Amendment by using excessive force to seize him. The present appeal addressed the liability
of Scott alone. Both lower federal courts, taking Harris’s allegations as being true in addressing
Scott’s motion for summary judgment, held that the officer was not entitled to prevail on the
basis of his claim of qualified immunity. In reaching its decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court
of Appeals relied heavily on Tennessee v. Garner (1985), the leading Supreme Court precedent
on an officer’s unconstitutional use of deadly force in the context of a civil rights suit.
The Supreme Court reversed this outcome by a vote of eight to one. The Court first con-
sidered whether the facts as framed in Harris’s allegations were sufficient to establish a
Fourth Amendment violation by Deputy Scott, noting that only an affirmative determina-
tion of this question would necessitate addressing the qualified immunity issue. Justice
Scalia, writing for the majority, noted that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment,
disputed facts should normally be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party, and the district court had done so. Harris claimed that the facts did not justify the
level of force that was used because it was out of line with any dangers that...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT