Recent Supreme Court Decisions:

High Court allows bribery - Singleton Decision rejected by Supreme Court

We have kept our readers informed as the controversial federal case U.S. v. Singleton wound its way through the court system. This potentially explosive story first became newsworthy when a three judge panel out of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided unanimously that federal prosecutors offering immunity or sentencing leniency in exchange for testimony was tantamount to bribing a witness. The panel loudly declared that this abhorrent practice was an open invitation to perjury, and the railroading of innocent defendants.

The U.S. Department of Justice objected to the appellate decision. Congress soon joined in, and the full en banc hearing of the 10th Circuit that followed held up the original conviction on hearsay testimony. It was ruled that U.S. Attorneys were immune from the bribery statute.

Sadly, on June 21, the Supreme Court also decided in favor of the plaintiff, our government. The Justice Department told the Court that the argument that the practice was illegal was "contrary to well-settled law" and did not deserve Supreme Court review. The high court rejected without any comment or dissent the argument that federal prosecutors commit bribery by granting leniency to a witness in exchange for testimony.

Supreme Court establishes due process protections for defendants accused of operating a Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE)

By Scott Ehlers, Senior Policy Analyst, Drug Policy Foundation*

It is a rare occasion when the Supreme Court rules against the government in a drug-related case, but on June 1 it did just that. The conservative court ruled by a 6 to 3 margin that in order to convict someone of operating a continuing criminal enterprise (CCE), jurors must agree on the specific drug offenses that were committed. The decision establishes a badly needed due process protection for defendants accused of operating a CCE, an offense that carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The case, Richardson v. United States, involved Eddie Richardson, a.k.a. "King of all the Undertakers." Richardson was accused of organizing a Chicago street gang called the Undertaker Vice Lords beginning in 1970, which reportedly distributed heroin and cocaine from 1984 to 1991. In 1994, Richardson was charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise for his leadership role in the organization.

According to federal law, a person engages in a CCE if he/she: (1) commits "a continuing series" of federal drug law violations; (2) is in a position of leadership with five or more other persons in the operation; and (3) obtains "substantial income or resources" from the violations.

At the trial, Richardson argued that the jury should be instructed that it had to unanimously agree on which three illegal acts constituted the series of violations that made up the continuing criminal enterprise. The judge disagreed and instead instructed the jury that it "must unanimously agree that the defendant committed at least three federal narcotics offenses," but did not have to agree as to the particular offenses. Richardson was convicted.

Because the federal circuit courts have disagreed on the definition of a continuing criminal enterprise, the Supreme Court took the case. The question before the court was: Does a jury have to unanimously agree on the specific violations involved in the 'continuing series' of violations, or can it simply agree that a series of violations took place?

In the majority opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Stevens, Scalia, Souter, and Thomas, the Court found that a jury "must unanimously agree not only that the defendant committed some 'continuing series of violations,' but also about which specific 'violations' make up that 'continuing series.'" Breyer warned that the breadth of the statute and the federal drug laws create "dangers of unfairness" if a jury was not required to agree on individual violations of law. Breyer noted that the Federal Criminal Code's anti-drug statutes consist of approximately 90 numbered sections, which vary in degree of seriousness. "[B]y permitting a jury to avoid discussion of the specific factual details of each violation will cover-up wide disagreement among the jurors about just what the defendant did, or did not, do."

In the dissenting opinion written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg, Kennedy wrote that the ruling would be "disruptive" and would make convictions under the statute "remarkably more difficult." Justice Breyer countered that it should not be difficult to prove specific crimes in a continuing criminal enterprise, and if it was difficult, "would that difficulty in proving individual specific transactions not tend to cast doubt upon the existence of the requisite 'series'?"

U.S. Supreme Court opts for empty ritual: prisoners must petition State Supreme Courts

The U.S. Supreme Court held on June 7 that before state prisoners can seek federal habeas corpus relief, they must first petition the state supreme courts for discretionary review, even in states, like Illinois, which leave such matters to the state's intermediate appellate court. (O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 97-2048).

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) filed a friend of the court brief supporting the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to the contrary.

NACDL President Larry Pozner issued the following statement from his office in Denver: "The Court has made it easier to let innocent people rot in jail. We should be assisting rather than impeding the review of convictions which may be unconstitutional. This includes the many convictions of actually innocent persons. Instead, the Court has tacked on red tape and needless paperwork.

"The Supreme Court continues to tinker with citizens' rights. After making it easier and quicker to convict and imprison, the Court now makes review of constitutional errors more difficult and time-consuming. What kind of a nation puts a greater premium on paperwork than liberty itself?

"As our Amicus Brief points out, state prisoners should not be put to the empty ritual of state supreme court review where those courts, including the Illinois Supreme Court, clearly defer to the intermediate appellate court. The quest for justice in America has suffered another setback."

Loitering law unconstitutional

Chicago's loitering law, which other cities look to as a model for 'reclaiming the streets' in gang-infested neighborhoods, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on Thursday on the grounds that it gave police too much discretion to target innocent people. The vote was 6-3.

The law made it a crime to "remain in any one place with no apparent purpose" in the presence of a suspected gang member when ordered by a police officer to move on.

Supremes decide no warrant needed for automobile search

If police decide there's drugs in your car, they need not even apply for a warrant, according to a recent Supreme Court decision.

In Maryland vs. Dyson, (98-1062), the court agreed unanimously that a search warrant is not required if police had "information" that a car would be carrying drugs.

In Dyson's case, police received an informant's tip that Dyson would be driving a rental car after going to New York City to buy cocaine. They subsequently found 23 grams of crack cocaine in the trunk. Dyson was convicted after a trial judge ruled the police could search his car without a warrant once they had reason to believe it contained "evidence of a crime".

A mid-level Maryland appeals court reversed, saying the search was unlawful because police would have had time to get a warrant. The Supreme Court proceeded to reverse that court's decision in an unsigned opinion.

*The Drug Policy Foundation, having merged with the Lindesmith Center is now the Drug Policy Alliance