U.S. Supreme Court Update 1-28-09

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section, http://www.abanet.org/crimjust


AP reporting: The Court threw out a lawsuit by a Los Angeles man wrongfully convicted of murder and gave district attorneys a broad shield against being sued even if their management mistakes send an innocent person to prison.

Thomas L. Goldstein, a former Marine convicted in a 1979 shooting in Long Beach, spent 24 years in prison largely on the word of a heroin addict who had worked as a jailhouse informant for police and prosecutors. Edward F. Fink lied on the witness stand when he denied receiving a benefit for testifying for police, a judge found.

Goldstein was freed in 2004, and he sued former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp and top deputy Curt Livesay, contending they allowed prosecutors to regularly use jailhouse informants and did not take steps to make sure they were telling the truth.

In Goldstein’s case, the trial prosecutor did not know Fink was lying because other prosecutors in the sprawling district attorney’s office did not share information.

The Supreme Court mostly set aside the facts of Goldstein’s case and focused on the potential harm of allowing top prosecutors to be sued. District attorneys who are managing teams of prosecutors should not face the fear they might be sued years later by resentful suspects, the justices said.

In the past, the court said trial prosecutors were entitled to absolute immunity for their courtroom work. In Monday’s ruling in Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein, the high court extended that shield to cover district attorneys and other chief prosecutors for any actions that involve prosecutions and trials.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said top prosecutors could be sued for “administrative” failures. The decision rejected Van de Kamp’s claim of immunity and cleared Goldstein’s lawsuit to proceed.The Supreme Court rejected the distinction between administrative and management tasks and said management of trial-related information was a prosecution function.

“We conclude that a prosecutor’s absolute immunity extends to all these claims” about tracking jailhouse informants because they are “directly connected with the conduct of a trial,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said.

The court also threw out a lawsuit against police in Utah who, based on the word of an informant, burst into a house without a warrant. The justices did not decide whether the search was illegal but concluded that police were immune from being sued.

ARIZONA v. JOHNSON (07-1122)

AP Reporting: The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police officers have leeway to frisk a passenger in a car stopped for a traffic violation even if nothing indicates the passenger has committed a crime or is about to do so. The court on Monday unanimously overruled an Arizona appeals court that threw out evidence found during such an encounter.

The case involved a 2002 pat-down search of an Eloy, Ariz., man by an Oro Valley police officer, who found a gun and marijuana. The justices accepted Arizona’s argument that traffic stops are inherently dangerous for police and that pat-downs are permissible when an officer has a reasonable suspicion that the passenger may be armed and dangerous. The pat-down is allowed if the police “harbor reasonable suspicion that a person subjected to the frisk is armed, and therefore dangerous to the safety of the police and public,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.


Per Curiam opinion shortened.

Lawrence Nelson was convicted of one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of cocaine base. The District Court calculated Nelson’s sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, and imposed a sentence of 360 months in prison (the bottom of the range).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed Nelson’s conviction and sentence. United States v. Nelson, 237Fed. Appx. 819 (2007)

Nelson filed a petition for a writ of certiorari. We granted the petition, vacated the judgment, and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit for further consideration in light of Rita v. United States, 551 U. S. 338 (2007) .

On remand and without further briefing, the Fourth Circuit again affirmed the sentence. 276Fed. Appx. 331 (2008) (per curiam). The court acknowledged that under Rita, while courts of appeals “may apply a presumption of reasonableness to a district court sentence that reflects a proper application of the Sentencing Guidelines,” 551 U. S., at 347, “the sentencing court does not enjoy the benefit of a legal presumption that the Guidelines sentence should apply,” id., at 351. Instead, the sentencing court must first calculate the Guidelines range, and then consider what sentence is appropriate for the individual defendant in light of the statutory sentencing factors, 18 U. S. C. ยง3553(a), explaining any variance from the former with reference to the latter.

Nelson has again filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, reasserting, inter alia, essentially the same argument he made before us the first time: that the District Court’s statements clearly indicate that it impermissibly applied a presumption of reasonableness to his Guidelines range. The United States admits that the Fourth Circuit erred in rejecting that argument following our remand; we agree.

In this case, the Court of Appeals quoted the above language from Rita but affirmed the sentence anyway after finding that the District Judge did not treat the Guidelines as mandatory. That is true, but beside the point. The Guidelines are not only not mandatory on sentencing courts; they are also not to be presumed reasonable. We think it plain from the comments of the sentencing judge that he did apply a presumption of reasonableness to Nelson’s Guidelines range. Under our recent precedents, that constitutes error.

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