Newsletter.gif (2157 bytes)
A Weekly Summary of Snippets of Justice From the Federal Courts

Vol. 8, No. 6              Covering Cases Published in the Advance Sheets through Feb. 5, 2001

Highlights of this Issue:

Supreme Court Case:

Apprendi Watch:

Miscellaneous Issues:

U.S.S.G. and Sentencing Issues:

Dont forget to visit the Apprendi  Watch section of our Web site each week - the most current and comprehensive site on the entire Internet for all the latest developments involving that watershed decision.  Our Apprendi Watch section now includes links to and summaries of more than 140 Apprendi decisions, more than 100 Apprendi briefs and motions, and a chronological listing of the 45 cases that the Supreme Court has vacated to date based on Apprendi.

Illinois v. McArthur, No. 99-1132 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 2/20/2001) (Justice Breyer)

In this case the Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, held that police officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment by barring a defendant (who had exited his trailer home during an encounter with them) from re-entering the trailer unaccompanied while the police sought a warrant to search the house.

The case began when Tera McArthur asked two police officers in Illinois to accompany her to the trailer where she lived with her husband, Charles McArthur, so they could ensure her safety while she gathered her possessions and moved out. After removing her possessions, she told one police officer that her husband had hidden some "dope" under the couch. The officer then knocked on the door, and McArthur came outside. The police asked permission to search the trailer. When he refused, one officer left to get a search warrant and the other refused to allow McArthur to reenter unless the officer could accompany him.

It took about two hours to get the warrant; and the police then conducted a search of the trailer. They found both marijuana and drug paraphernalia. McArthur was charged in state court with possession of less than 2.5 grams of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, both misdemeanors. He moved to suppress the evidence seized on the ground that they were the "fruit" of an unlawful police seizure, namely, the refusal to let him reenter the trailer unaccompanied, which would have permitted him, he said, to "have destroyed the marijuana."

The trial court granted McArthur's suppression motion; and the Illinois appellate courts affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari "to determine whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits the kind of temporary seizure at issue here." It concluded that the restraint that the police had exercised on McArthur was reasonable; and it reversed the Illinois courts, sending the case back for trial.

The Court stressed that the officers had probable cause to believe that there were drugs in the house; that they had good reason to think that the defendant would destroy the drugs given a chance; and that the restriction they imposed on the defendant was both tailored to the demands of the situation and limited in time.

Justice Stevens dissented. He argued that "[e]ach of the Illinois jurists who participated in the decision of this case placed a higher value on the sanctity of the ordinary citizen's home than on the prosecution of this petty offense. They correctly viewed that interest - whether the home be a humble cottage, a secondhand trailer, or a stately mansion - as one meriting the most serious constitutional protection."

Brown v. City of Oneonta, New York, 235 F.3d 769(2nd Cir. 2000) (En Banc) (Judge Walker)

The five separate decisions in this case reflect how extraordinarily sensitive and explosive charges of racial profiling can be. Here those charges set off an old-fashioned judicial donnybrook that was filled with an undercurrent of invective and "hurtful remarks" that is rare in the world of judicial politeness.

In this case, an intruder broke into the home of, and attacked, a 77-year old woman who lived alone in Oneonta, a small town in upstate New York. The town has about 10,000 full time residents (of whom fewer than 300 are blacks); plus some 7,500 college students who attend a State University (of whom fewer than 150 are blacks). (Id., at 779). Although the victim could not identify her assailants face, she told the police that he was a "young black man," based on her view of his hand and forearm and the speed with which he moved and that, as they struggled, the suspect had cut himself on his hand with a knife he was carrying. (Id.).

Armed with that information, the local police "immediately" contacted the University and requested a list of all its black male students and the police attempted to locate and question every one of those students. When that endeavor produced no suspects, the police broadened their search by conducting, over the next several days, a "sweep" of Oneonta, during which they stopped and questioned all non-white persons they saw on the streets and inspected their hands for cuts. More than 200 persons were questioned during that period (including at least one black woman), but no suspect was apprehended.

The black students and the persons who were stopped and questioned by the police brought suit against the Town of Oneonta, charging that they had been unlawfully singled out because of their race and that such actions violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, inter alia.

The district court (Judge McAvoy) dismissed the complaint based on what all the judges agreed was "an erroneous theory. The lower court believed, incorrectly, that in order to state an equal protection claim plaintiffs were required . . . to plead the existence of a similarly situated group of non-minority individuals that were treated differently in the investigation of a crime. Accordingly, after giving plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their pleadings to make such an allegation (which plaintiffs were unable to do), it dismissed their amended complaint." (Id., at 781).

In a decision reported at 221 F.3d 329 (2nd Cir. 2000), a three judge panel from the Second Circuit essentially held that the police interviews did not trigger equal protection scrutiny "because the officers, by acting on the basis of a description provided by the victim, proceeded in a race neutral manner, and limited their search for a suspect to persons fitting the victims description." (Id., at 772). That decision led the Attorney General of the State of New York to comment that "we won the case, but it makes your skin crawl." (Id., at 789). The plaintiffs then petitioned for a rehearing en banc, and, by a vote of 7 to 5, the active judges declined to grant a rehearing en banc.

While it is impossible, in a brief summary, to capture the full positions of either side, the differences of opinion were both philosophical and emotional. Chief Judge Walker was openly perturbed that the dissenting judges had "chosen . . . to advance . . . novel equal protection theories that, in my view, would severely impact police protection. . . . [They] propose that when the police have been given a description of a criminal perpetrator by a victim that includes the perpetrators race, their subsequent investigation to find that perpetrator may constitute a suspect racial classification under the equal protection clause. . . . [But] for better or worse, it is a fact of life in our diverse culture that race is used on a daily basis as a shorthand for physical appearance. . . . [To change that] [p]olice work, as we know it would be impaired and the safety of all citizens impaired." (Id., at 771).

Judge Straub, who wrote one of several dissenting opinions, argued in favor of an en banc review, stating that the case presented exceptionally important questions of constitutional law concerning "the manner in and degree to which police investigations may rely upon predominantly racial descriptions given by witnesses are to be scrutinized . . . " (Id., at 789). Throughout their opinions, the dissenters noted two facts which raised serious concerns about the validity of Judge Walkers conclusion that the police sweeps were "race neutral." First, they noted that the State Police Investigator had told the local newspapers that the objective of the sweeps was to try "to examine the hands of all the black people in the community." (Id., at 780). Second, they emphasized that the police conducted their search of the black communities without regard to the age or sex of the suspects - even stopping at least one black female "suspect."

Odle v. Woodford, No. 99-99029 (9th Cir. 2/06/2001) (Judge Kozinski)

This is one of those reality check cases. James Richard Odle was tried and convicted in 1983 of two first degree murders; and he was sentenced to death. Since then he has been attempting to prove that he was denied due process at his trial because the state court refused to grant him a competency hearing. Seventeen years later he finally got a fair hearing on that issue.

Throughout the protracted proceedings in this case, the state always argued that Odles own lawyer had not questioned his competence at the time of trial. In fact, as the Court noted in this case, "no one questioned competence over the course of two years of pretrial proceedings and twenty-eight days of trial." That argument apparently persuaded all of the California state courts and District Judge Charles Legge of California that Odles claims were without merit.

Without wasting words, Judge Kozinski cut to the quick. He reversed, stating simply that "as the trial judge was aware, Odle was missing a piece of his brain the size of a grapefruit." (Emphasis added).

He also observed that it was well know to all the parties that "Odles mental problems started in 1973 when he suffered severe trauma to his brain as a result of a car accident. A surgeon performed a temporal lobe lobectomy, removing a 3 x 3 x 4 inch piece of his brain. The surgeon left just a flap of skin to cover the opening in his skull, and only when Odle complained thirteen months later that his brain was pulsating beneath the skin, did the surgeon insert a plastic plate to close the opening. Doctors, family and friends testified that this experience left Odle a different guy, one who appeared to be mentally unstable and out of control."

Judge Kozinski concluded that it was irrelevant what defense counsel did or did not do - and that a trial judge cannot sit as a blind and mute robot. The standard is that "a trial judge must conduct a competency hearing whenever the evidence before him raises a bona fide doubt about the defendants competence to stand trial, even if defense counsel does not ask for one." Thus, the Court remanded the case back to the district court with instructions to grant a writ of habeas corpus and release Odle within 60 days unless the state trial judge conducts a hearing to determine whether Odle was competent at the time he stood trial.

Scorecard Of Published Federal Criminal Cases Reviewed By Our Staff:


This Week

Year to Date

Since 1996

Courts of Appeal




District Courts




Copyright 2001 Punch and Jurists, Ltd.