United States Supreme Court Decisions in Criminal Law – 2006

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right to Counsel of One’s Choice

The United States Supreme Court upheld the right of a defendant to counsel of his choice. United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, No. 05 352 (June 26, 2006). The Court held that a defendant’s right to a criminal defense attorney of his choice is violated even when substitute counsel provides an effective defense.

After his arraignment in the Eastern District of Missouri, Gonzalez-Lopez attempted to change counsel. Joseph Low, an attorney licensed in California, was denied admission pro hac vice. After several attempts to gain admission failed, Gonzalez-Lopez hired a local attorney to represent him at trial. He was convicted and appealed based on denial of his right to counsel of his choice. The Eighth Circuit vacated the conviction, holding in part, that Low was improperly denied admission pro hac vice. The Government never argued with Eighth Circuit’s holding regarding the attorney’s attempts to gain admission.

The Government argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that a violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of his choice is only “complete” if substitute counsel was ineffective. Regardless of whether denial of the defendant’s right was complete, the Government claimed the Court should review the deprivation of the defendant’s right under a harmless-error standard.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the Government, saying that the right at stake is not the right to a fair trial, but the right to counsel of choice. The right to select counsel of one’s choosing is not derived from the Sixth Amendment’s purpose of ensuring a fair trial. It is, therefore, not necessary to conduct an effectiveness or prejudice inquiry to establish a Sixth Amendment violation. Gonzalez-Lopez at 7. Deprivation of the right is complete when a defendant is denied his right to counsel of his choosing, regardless of substitute counsel’s performance.

The Government then asked the Court to review the matter under a standard of harmless error. The Supreme Court declined to do so. The Court said harmless error applies to “trial errors,” not “structural errors.” Gonzalez-Lopez at 8. Trial errors can be reviewed through transcripts of the proceedings. When a defendant is denied his right to counsel of his choosing, a Court cannot utilize transcripts to determine if the defendant was prejudiced. A court can only review a proceeding for errors by substitute counsel; it cannot review intangibles a defendant’s counsel of choice would have brought to the proceeding. Because a court cannot properly review the effect of substituting counsel, such an error is a structural error, not reviewable under harmless error.

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Rule Allowing Judges to Bar Evidence of Alleged Third-Party Guilt in Criminal Cases

The United States Supreme Court struck down a South Carolina rule allowing judges to bar defense evidence of alleged third-party guilt when the prosecution has introduced forensic evidence that, if believed, strongly supports a guilty verdict. Holmes v. South Carolina, No. 04 1327 (May 1, 2006).

Holmes was convicted by a South Carolina jury of murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, first-degree burglary, and robbery in the beating, rape, and murder of an elderly woman. He was sentenced to death. At trial, the prosecution presented forensic evidence including a palm print at the woman’s home, fibers from the defendant’s clothing found in the home, fibers from the victim’s clothing found on the defendant’s clothing, blood evidence, and a 99.99% DNA match. Due to this strong evidence, the defense was barred from presenting evidence alleging that a third-party, Jimmy White, had actually committed the crime. At a pretrial hearing, the defense presented witnesses who placed White at the scene of the crime, as well as witnesses who said White made incriminating statements as to his own guilt in the crime. White denied making such statements.

The trial court excluded the third-party evidence citing State v. Gregory, which held that “such evidence is admissible if it ‘raise[s] a reasonable inference or presumption as to [the defendant's] own innocence’ but is not admissible if it merely ‘cast[s] a bare suspicion upon another’ or ‘raise[s] a conjectural inference as to the commission of the crime by another.’ 16 S.E. 2d 532, 534 (1941). Holmes at 3. The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed, saying that “where there is strong evidence of an appellant’s guilt, especially where there is strong forensic evidence, the proffered evidence about a third party’s alleged guilt does not raise a reasonable inference as to the appellant’s own innocence.” 605 S.E. 2d, at 24. Holmes at 4.

The United States Supreme Court disagreed with the South Carolina Court. The U.S. Court said that while the state courts have wide deference to create their own rules of evidence, the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.” Holmes at 4. This right is abridged by rules that “‘infring[e] upon a weighty interest of the accused’ and are ‘arbitrary’ or ‘disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve.’” Id. As an example of such a rule, the Court pointed to a Texas rule allowing judges to exclude testimony from another alleged participant in the same crime. Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14 (1967). Holmes at 4. In Washington, a murder defendant was barred from introducing testimony of a third-party who had already been convicted of the same murder. The U.S. Supreme Court held that such a rule could not even be defended on the ground that such a witness was “particularly likely to commit perjury,” since the rule allowed an alleged participant to testify if he had been acquitted or was called by the prosecution. Id.

In striking down the South Carolina rule, the Court said that by evaluating only one party’s evidence, no logical conclusion can be reached regarding the strength of contrary evidence offered by the other side to rebut or case doubt. Because the South Carolina rule ignores one side’s evidence, it is “arbitrary” and violates a criminal defendant’s right to have “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.” Holmes at 11.

U.S. Supreme Court Approves Warrantless Entry to Protect Occupant from Imminent Injury

In Brigham City v. Stuart, the U.S. Supreme Court held that police may enter a dwelling “to render assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” No. 05-502 (2006).

In 2000, Brigham City, Utah, police officers responded to a call regarding a loud house party, at about 3:00 am. The officers found two juveniles drinking alcohol in the backyard. When an officer looked through the kitchen screen door, he saw a melee. Four adults were attempting to restrain a wild teenager. The teenager broke free, smashing one adult in the face, causing blood to flow. The officer opened the door and shouted that he was a police officer. No one noticed him. Following his walking into the kitchen, the violence finally subsided. The officers arrested several people for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, disorderly conduct, and intoxication.

At trial, defendants motioned to suppress all evidence obtained after the officers entered the home, arguing that the warrantless entry violated the 4th Amendment. The trial court and the Utah Supreme Court agreed. The Utah Court held that the injury caused by the juvenile’s punch was insufficient to trigger the so-called “emergency aid doctrine” because it did not give rise to an “objectively reasonable belief that an unconscious, semi-conscious, or missing person feared injured or dead [was] in the home.” Brigham City at 2. The Utah Court further agreed with Defendants that the doctrine was inapplicable because the officers had not sought to assist the injured adult, but instead had acted “exclusively in their law enforcement capacity.” Id. The Utah Court also held that the entry did not fall within the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement because a reasonable person would not have believed “that the entry was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons.” Brigham City at 3.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. First, the Court corrected the Utah Court, stating that “law enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Brigham City at 4.

Second, the Court reminded the Utah Court that the reasonable person test is an objective rather than subjective standard. Regardless of whether the officers were more interested in making arrests than aiding the injured adult, the objective circumstances justified the officer’s actions.

Finally, the Court invoked an analogy to boxing in explaining the error in the Defendants’ argument that the injury to the wounded adult was not serious enough to justify the officers’ intrusion into the home. The Court said that “[n]othing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone ‘unconscious’ or ‘semi-conscious’ or worse before entering. The role of a peace officer includes preventing violence and restoring order, not simply rendering first aid to casualties; an officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided.” Brigham City at 7.

The Supreme Court claims it awarded certiorari in Brigham City to resolve differences among state courts and Courts of Appeals concerning the “appropriate Fourth Amendment standard governing warrantless entry by law enforcement in an emergency situation.” Brigham City at 3. It seems, however, that the Court may have taken Brigham City, due to the bizarre nature of the Utah Supreme Court’s holding that the officers should have let the fight continue until someone was knocked out. The rules of the Nevada Boxing Commission do not apply to real life.

US Supreme Court: Evidence from Search Refused by Co-Occupant Excluded in Trial of Co-Occupant

In Georgia v. Randolph, the United States Supreme Court held that when one co-occupant consents to a search of the couple’s property, but the other co-occupant refuses, the fruit of the search cannot be introduced as evidence against the refusing party. No. 04-1067 (2006).

In Randolph, Janet Randolph had taken their son to live with her parents in Canada when the couple separated in 2001. Later, she returned with the child, whether to reconcile or retrieve her belongings was unknown to the Court. After an argument, Scott Randolph left with the child. Janet called police.

Janet told the police officers that her husband was a cocaine user. When Scott returned with the child, he denied her accusation and told police she was the drug user. The officers asked to search the house for drugs. Janet gave them permission to search. Scott refused. Janet led an officer to a bedroom where the officer found a drinking straw with powder he suspected to be cocaine. When the officer returned from his car with an evidence bag, Janet changed her mind and withdrew her permission to search. After getting a search warrant, based on the powder on the straw, they searched the house and seized further evidence of drug use. Over Scott’s objection to introducing the evidence, he was convicted of possession of cocaine.

The Court has recognized the validity of searches with the voluntary consent of an individual possessing authority over the property to be searched. Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 US 177 (1990). United States v. Matlock, 415 US 164 (1974). Such consent may be given by a fellow occupant who shares common authority over property when the suspect is absent. Matlock at 170. In Randolph, the Court addressed whether a search is valid when one party consents to the search, but the other party refuses.

The Court used an everyday example to illustrate its reasoning for disallowing the fruits of a search where the suspect was present and refused to allow police to search his property: When a caller is given permission to enter shared premises by one party, but the other party tells him to “stay out,” the caller should have no confidence he has permission to enter. The Court, likewise, reasoned that when police have consent for a search from one party, but the other refuses, they should not feel confident they have permission to search the property.

The Court held, in the end, that the refusal of a physically present co-occupant to consent to a search renders the search invalid as to him.

Supreme Court Holds 911 Calls Admissible Hearsay Evidence

In Davis v. Washington and Hammon v. Indiana, the US Supreme Court held that statements made during 911 emergency calls can be introduced as evidence in criminal cases. 05-5224, 05-5705 (June 19, 2006).

The Court had previously held in Crawford v. Washington that the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment bars “admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.” 541 US 36, 51 (2004). In Davis and Hammon, the Court took a closer look at “testimonial statements.”

Davis was arrested and charged with felony violation of a no-contact order. His ex-girlfriend, Michelle McCrotty, had called 911, but was disconnected before she could speak. The 911 operator reversed the call, and McCrotty answered. She told the operator that Davis is in her home “jumpin’ on me again” and later that he is “runnin’ now.” The 911 operator dispatched officers to McCrotty’s home after retrieving identifying information on McCrotty and Davis.

McCrotty failed to appear at Davis’ trial. Over Davis’ objection, the trial judge allowed one of the officers to read part of the 911 transcript to the jury. The jury convicted Davis, after which he appealed and cited the Confrontation Clause.

In Hammon, the defendant, Hershel Hammon, was convicted of domestic battery and violating his probation. Police had responded to a report of a domestic disturbance. Upon arrival, it was obvious that Amy Hammon had been struck. One officer took Hershel into the kitchen while the other interrogated Amy in the living room. Amy described the incident and told the officer that Hershel had struck her. She prepared an affidavit and signed it.

Amy was subpoenaed, but did not appear at Hershel’s bench trial. The State called the officer who had questioned Amy and asked him to recount what she had told him and authenticate the affidavit. After hearing that the affidavit was made “under oath,” defense counsel complained that “[t]hat doesn’t give us the opportunity to cross examine [the] person who allegedly drafted it.” Id at 5. The trial court admitted the affidavit as a “present sense impression,” and Amy’s statements as “excited utterances” that “are expressly permitted in these kinds of cases even if the declarant is not available to testify.” Id at 5.

The Supreme Court declared that McCrotty’s 911 call contained nontestimonial statements, while Hammon’s responses to the officer’s questions were nonadmissible testimonial statements. The Court differentiated between testimonial and nontestimonial statements:

Statements are nontestimonial when made in the course of police interrogation under circumstances objectively indicating that the primary purpose of the interrogation is to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. They are testimonial when the circumstances objectively indicate that there is no such ongoing emergency, and that the primary purpose of the interrogation is to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution.

Davis at 7.

In McCrotty’s case, the Court said her statements were not for the purpose of establishing the existence of a past event, but were made for the primary purpose of allowing police to provide emergency assistance. Such statements are admissible as nontestimonial.

Hammon’s criminal defense conviction, on the other hand, was reversed, in part, because the trial court admitted Amy’s statements to the officer. Her statements were made to establish that Hershel had struck her. Such statements made to establish the truth of a past event are testimonial statements subject to the hearsay rules. The Court also rejected the trial court’s ruling that the affidavit was Amy’s “present sense impression,” and that Amy’s statements were “excited utterances.”

The Court did not hold that all 911 calls, or even the entirety of any one 911 call, would be admissible, only that statements made in order to obtain emergency assistance, due to an ongoing event, would be admissible. In fact, the Court held that a portion of McCrotty’s 911 transcript violated this rule, but the reading of that portion amounted to harmless error.