SCOTUS Takes Up Three Crime-Related Cases

At its conference last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court took up three cases related to crime and law enforcement. One raises the question of whether a police officer’s failure to give Miranda warnings creates a civil liability, in addition to making the confession inadmissible in a criminal case. A second involves a challenge to a state’s method of execution, offering an alternative not authorized by state law. A third involves proceedings in federal district court to develop evidence for a habeas corpus petition without regard to whether the evidence could even be considered in deciding the case.

Vega v. Tekoh, No. 21-499, presents once again the question of whether a police officer can be sued for not giving a Miranda warning before questioning that the plaintiff claims was custodial if the resulting confession is subsequently admitted in a criminal case. If that sounds reminiscent of Chavez v. Martinez (2003), it is, but that case involved a statement that was never admitted in evidence. The Ninth Circuit panel found that this difference allowed the case to go forward, rejecting the position of the Eighth Circuit. Despite the circuit split and the importance of the issue, the full Ninth Circuit denied rehearing en banc over the “dissental” of seven of its judges.

Nance v. Ward, No. 21-439, addresses a question left open in Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637 (2004) and Hill v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573 (2006). Those cases held that method-of-execution challenges could proceed as civil suits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and not habeas corpus, where they sought only an injunction against particular aspects of the execution but would allow the execution to go forward if the state complied. In this case the injunction would preclude execution altogether because the plaintiff’s proffered alternative method, firing squad, is not authorized by state law. The Eleventh Circuit held that under Nelson and Hill that difference sends the case back to habeas corpus, which makes it subject to the limitations placed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).

Shoop v. Twyford, No. 21-511 raises an issue related to the development of new facts in a federal habeas corpus proceeding. By the time a state court case reaches federal habeas, it has typically been through a direct appeal process and at least one state collateral proceeding. In most capital cases, the facts should be fully developed by that point, and in AEDPA Congress strengthened the limits on rehashing cases already litigated and decided. Can a state prisoner, particularly one sentenced to death, use the time-consuming processes of court-ordered discovery without showing that the facts he seeks can even be considered? A “yes” answer to that question would be a bonanza for murderers seeking to delay their executions, which is exactly what AEDPA was enacted to reduce.

Stay tuned for more developments in these cases as the term progresses. These are likely the last cases to be taken up for argument this term. Any further cases taken up for full briefing and argument will likely be argued next fall.