Yarborough v. Alvarado: at the crossroads of the "unreasonable application" provision of the Antiterrorism and effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the consideration of juvenile status in custodial determinations.

Author:Park, Jennifer

Yarborough v. Alvarado, 124 S. Ct. 2140 (2004)


    In Yarborough v. Alvarado, (1) the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit, finding that the California Court of Appeals had not unreasonably failed to extend Supreme Court precedent in refusing to include juvenile age and experience as factors in the determination of whether Michael Alvarado was in police custody for Miranda purposes. (2) Procedurally, the Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit erred in its grant of habeas relief, as the non-consideration of Alvarado's underage status and lack of experience in determining custody was not an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. (3) The Court has considered these two factors in the past, but only in the realm of confessions and in the assessment of defendants' voluntary waivers of their privilege to avoid self-incrimination. (4) Never had juvenile status as a factor in custodial determinations been addressed by the Supreme Court. (5) Thus, given the absence of Supreme Court precedent in this area, the state court's refusal to extend the custodial determination standard to include age and prior experience was not an unreasonable application of federal law, thereby leaving Michael Alvarado without any grounds for relief under 28 U.S.C. [section] 2254(d). (6) Substantively, setting aside the procedural issue of Supreme Court precedent, the Court again determined that prior history with law enforcement and age should not be factors in the objective determination of whether a juvenile was "in custody" for Miranda purposes, contrary to the Ninth Circuit's decision. (7)

    This Note, in agreement with the Supreme Court's decision, argues that the California state court was within the limits of habeas corpus jurisprudence in refusing to broaden existing Supreme Court precedent dealing with custodial determinations, and that the state's refusal was not objectively unreasonable. Under the confines of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), (8) the state court did not err in choosing not to consider Alvarado's age and lack of prior criminal history. Since these two factors are of a material nature, it was under the purview of the Supreme Court to determine whether or not these two factors should have been included, and not any other court.

    However, this Note also criticizes the Supreme Court's ultimate conclusion that juvenile status should not be a consideration in the objective determination of whether an individual is "in custody" for the purposes of Miranda. The immaturity of adolescents and their lesser ability to make decisions compared to adults has been the impetus behind many social policies and Supreme Court precedent in treating juveniles according to a different standard than adults. Thus with custodial determinations, it would be wrong to apply the same criteria to both adults and minors, and to judge minors against a reasonable person standard that was developed with a reasonable adult in mind. The consideration of age would not damage the objective nature of the standard used to determine a suspect's custodial status, as the characteristics of youth are neither unique nor hard to discover.



      1. The Attempt to Reform Habeas Corpus Through the AEDPA

        Habeas corpus proceedings, though important in assuring that a petitioner's constitutional rights are preserved, are not meant to serve as opportunities for claims to be relitigated in the forum of the federal courts. (9) Historically, the writ of habeas corpus has been regarded as a means for redress for convictions that violate fundamental fairness (10) and for those who have been grievously wronged. (11) Courts have shown restraint in allowing the use of habeas corpus petitions by imposing exhaustion requirements, (12) limiting a prisoner's ability to make successive claims, (13) and disallowing retroactive application of new constitutional rules. (14) The purpose of these restrictions has been to prevent the relitigation of claims on collateral review and to prevent the degradation of the trial process. (15) Further, there is an interest in upholding the finality of convictions and honoring the courts' good-faith attempts to honor constitutional rights. (16) Limitations by the courts also preserve the scarce resources of the judiciary and save society from footing the burdensome costs associated with allowing habeas corpus petitions to run rampant within the court system. (17)

        Despite attempts by the court to prevent the abuse of this writ, decades of habeas rulings unavoidably led to a tangled and unmanageable morass of procedural rules, frictions between federal and state court systems, and increasing costs on the judicial system and society alike. (18) The AEDPA was the result of an effort to reform habeas, and extensively revised the law of habeas corpus as practiced within the federal judicial system. (19) Through this change, Congress hoped to curb delays, avoid retrials on federal habeas, and give effect to judgments made by state courts to the greatest extent possible under the law. (20)

        Section 2254(d)(1), through provisions of the AEDPA that limit a federal court's authority to grant habeas writs on behalf of persons in state custody, deals exclusively with the circumstances under which a federal court should grant a state petitioner's habeas application. (21) This section is critical as it serves a gatekeeper function for federal habeas review of state court judgments, by constraining a federal court's jurisdictional authority to three specified standards of review. (22) At the core of the AEDPA lies provisions codified at 28 U.S.C. [section] 2254(d), which state:

        An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim: (1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding. (23) A practical effect of the AEDPA was to impose stringent restrictions on habeas corpus petitioners and to codify the standards of review to be used by federal courts, through sweeping changes in habeas corpus jurisprudence. (24) Prior to the enactment of the AEDPA, classifying the question at issue as one of fact or as one of both law and fact, was essential in federal habeas proceedings because those two types of questions called for strikingly different standards of review. (25) Mixed questions of fact and law were generally reviewed de novo, while state decisions on mere questions of fact were presumed to be correct. (26) But post-AEDPA, a federal court generally would not disturb a state court's reasonable ruling, even if it would have decided the issue differently on de novo review on both mixed questions and questions of fact. (27) As a result, the AEDPA effectively reigned in those courts with the tendency to expand the rights of habeas petitioners, and left the development of the law in the hands of the Supreme Court. (28)

      2. Interpreting the AEDPA 's Effect on Habeas Corpus Jurisprudence in Williams v. Taylor

        Although the purpose of the AEDPA's changes to habeas corpus jurisprudence was to clarify the habeas process, the standard of review enacted by the AEDPA was not clear-cut and led many to wonder the extent of the AEDPA's reach. (29) Courts struggled to interpret correctly provisions of the AEDPA, but had particular difficulty determining how much deference federal courts should have of state court adjudications in view of [section] 2254(d)(1). (30) Since its inception, most cases decided by the Supreme Court concerning this seemingly innocuous subsection provided little or no meaningful interpretation of the newly changed statute. (31) The Supreme Court's first critical interpretation of the AEDPA was in Williams v. Taylor. (32) Still, the Supreme Court's Williams decision left many important questions unanswered and left an incoherent pattern of precedent, leaving the lower courts to fend for themselves in interpreting the meaning of [section] 2254(d), particularly those questions related to the scope of the "unreasonable application" standard. (33)

        Justice O'Connor, in writing for the majority (34) in Williams v. Taylor, expanded the language of [section] 2254(d)(1) and established that the AEDPA called for a deferential standard of review for habeas jurisprudence. (35) According to the decision, federal courts could grant habeas petitions and set aside state court judgments only if the decision is "contrary to" controlling Supreme Court precedent or if the state court's decision involves an "unreasonable application" of Supreme Court precedent. (36) A state court determination can be found to be "contrary to" the Supreme Court's established precedent under two conditions. (37) The first instance is when the state court arrives at a conclusion contradictory to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law. (38) The second occasion is when the state court is confronted with facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent, yet arrives at a result opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court. (39)

        Similarly, instances of when a state decision involves an "unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law are also twofold. The first condition is when a state court correctly identifies the governing legal rule, but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the case before them. (40) The alternative circumstance would be when a state court...

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