Recent Legal Developments

Date01 December 2016
Published date01 December 2016
Subject MatterRecent Legal Developments
CJR671359 528..546 Recent Legal Developments
Criminal Justice Review
2016, Vol. 41(4) 528-546
Recent Legal Developments:
ª 2016 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
Criminal Justice Decisions of
DOI: 10.1177/0734016816671359
the U.S. Supreme Court,
2015 Term
Craig Hemmens1 and Ruibin Lu1
In this article, we review and analyze the criminal justice–related decisions of the 2015 term of the
U.S. Supreme Court. We also provide a summary of the Court’s voting patterns and opine
authorship. Twenty-two of the Court’s 76 decisions touched on criminal justice. There were sig-
nificant decisions involving the exclusionary rule, search incident to arrest, the death penalty, and
courts/law, court, legal issues
During its 2015 term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a total of 80 decisions on the merits—63 signed
opinions, 13 summary reversals, and 4 affirmances of the lower court decision because the justices
were split 4-4 (there were actually 87 cases heard, but several cases were consolidated with others).
Of the 76 actual decisions during the 2014 term, only 22 (25%) dealt primarily with a criminal
justice–related issue. A number of these decisions dealt with important, if lower profile, issues such
as sentencing and the interpretation of federal statutes. A few, however, dealt with important and
controversial issues, including the authority of the police to search incident to arrest, the reach of the
exclusionary rule, and the application of the death penalty. The most memorable event of the term,
however, was undoubtedly the unexpected death of Justice Scalia in the Fall.
An examination of all of the Court’s decisions reveals some interesting patterns. Half (38 of
the 76) of the Court’s decisions were unanimous, while 25 decisions had either 8-1 or 7-2 majorities.
Only nine cases were decided by a 6-3 margin and a mere four cases were decided by a 5-4 margin;
these occurred prior to Justice Scalia’s death. Four cases decided after Justice Scalia’s death ended
up with a 4-4 vote. Justice Scalia’s death early in the term meant there were few 5-4 decisions. As
1 Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Craig Hemmens, Washington State University, 717 Johnson Tower, Pullman, WA 99163, USA.

Hemmens and Lu
has been the case in previous terms, Justice Kennedy was the justice most frequently in the majority
in these decisions; this year he was in the majority in all four of the 5-4 decisions and wrote the
majority opinion in two of the four cases.
The makeup of cases accepted by the Court was in line with past years. The vast majority of cases
(63 or 72%) were taken from the U.S. Courts of Appeal. The Supreme Court reversed the Circuit
Courts in 37 of the 63 (59%) cases. The Ninth Circuit had the most cases reviewed (11) and was
reversed 8 times (73%).
There were 13 summary reversals during the 2015 term. This is the most since 2009 (when there
were 14). There is no clear reason for the unusually high number of summary reversals, but it is
possible that Justice Scalia’s death had an impact in how the Court processed some of these cases.
The total number of merits opinions issued (80) was in line with recent years and continues the trend
in the Roberts Court of deciding fewer cases than the Warren, Burger, and Rehnquist Courts.
As for opinion writing, majority opinion authorship was divided quite evenly, with every justice
writing either seven or eight, except for Chief Justice Roberts with six opinions and Justice Kennedy
with nine opinions. This even distribution of opinions has been a hallmark of the Roberts Court and
speaks to the Chief Justice’s strong management skills.
Justice Thomas issued by far the most opinions overall (39), with 7 majority opinions, 14
concurring opinions, and 18 dissenting opinions. For the 5th year in a row, Justice Kagan produced
the fewest total opinions (12), with 8 majority opinions, 1 concurrence, and 2 dissents. Justice
Thomas also issued the most (14) concurring opinions. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kagan
had the fewest concurrences, with just one each. There were 36 total concurring opinions written
during the 2015 term. Justice Thomas authored the most dissents, with 18, followed by Justice
Sotomayor with 8 and Justice Alito with 6. There were 50 total dissenting opinions written during
the 2015 term.
We present below a summary and analysis of the most significant decisions involving criminal
justice. The cases are divided, somewhat roughly, into categories.
Fourth Amendment/Exclusionary Rule
Utah v. Strieff. In December 2006, while investigating an anonymous tip, South Salt Lake City police,
officer Fackrell conducted surveillance of a residence and suspected the occupants were dealing
drugs. Seeing Edward Strieff leaving the house, Officer Fackrell stopped him, asked what he was
doing at the residence, and requested his identification. When he ran Strieff’s identification through
the computer, Officer Fackrell learned Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic viola-
tion. Officer Fackrell then arrested Strieff on the basis of this warrant, searched him incident to the
arrest, and discovered a baggie of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff conditionally
pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia but argued
the evidence should have been excluded because it was the product of an unlawful investigatory
stop. The trial court denied the suppression motion, which was affirmed by the Utah Court of Appeal
but reversed by the Utah Supreme Court.
In a 5-3 decision, with the majority opinion authored by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court held
that while the stop conducted by Officer Fackrell was unlawful as he lacked reasonable suspicion or
probable cause, the evidence that seized as part of the search of Strieff incident to arrest based on the
warrant was admissible because the arrest warrant preceded the unlawful stop and the discovery of
evidence. In making this decision, the majority applied the three factors articulated in Brown v.
Illinois (1975) regarding: (1) the temporal proximity between the initial unlawful stop and the
search, (2) the existence of intervening circumstances, and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the
official misconduct. According to Justice Thomas, although the illegal search was close in time to
Strieff’s arrest, the other two Brown factors were strongly in favor of the state. Justice Thomas

Criminal Justice Review 41(4)
believed the discovery of the outstanding arrest warrant broke the causal chain because the existence
of the arrest warrant compelled Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff, and Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop
did not reflect flagrantly unlawful police misconduct. He also claimed this decision would not
encourage police officers to engage in suspicionless stops and searches.
Justice Sotomayor, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Kagan dissented from the majority’s decision.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, argued the discovery of the arrest warrant was an
essential component of the officer’s illegal stop, rather than an intervening circumstance. Further,
she asserted the unlawful stop was not an isolated instance but was the product of institutionalized
training procedures, as there was evidence that police frequently stopped people on the basis of a
(supposed) outstanding warrant rather on probable cause based on the person’s actions. Justice
Sotomayor further asserted the majority’s decision would not only subject innocent people to
unconstitutional searches but also encourage disproportionate numbers of stops and searches of
people of color. Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, argued the Court’s decision would
encourage police officers to stop people illegally, hoping to find an outstanding arrest warrant, and
would put the protections of the Fourth Amendment in jeopardy.
Fifth Amendment/Double Jeopardy Clause
Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle. Luis Sa´nchez Valle and Jamie Go´mez Va´zquez each sold a gun to an
undercover police officer. While Puerto Rican prosecutors were in the process of charging Sa´nchez
Valle and Go´mez Va´zquez for selling firearms in violation of the Puerto Rico Arms Act of 2000, a
U.S. Federal grand jury also indicted them based on the same transactions, for violations of analo-
gous federal gun trafficking statutes. Both defendants pled guilty to the federal charges and moved to
dismiss the pending Puerto Rico charges on double jeopardy grounds. Puerto Rico prosecutors, on
the other hand, argued the Double Jeopardy Clause did not apply because Puerto Rico and the United
States were separate sovereigns. The trial court dismissed the charges, which was reversed by the
Puerto Rico Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico then reversed, agreeing with the
trial court that Puerto Rico’s prosecutions violated the Double Jeopardy Clause.
In a 6-2 decision penned by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court held the Commonwealth of Puerto
Rico and the United States are not separate sovereigns. Therefore, the Double Jeopardy Clause bars
Puerto Rico from prosecuting offenders for the same conduct after they have pled guilty to the
equivalent federal charges. Justice Kagan stated the court examined the concept of ‘‘sovereignty’’ in
the double jeopardy context on a single criterion—whether the two entities derived their prosecution
powers from independent sources or the same source. In terms...

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