Category Archives: Criminal Law

Tennessee Supreme Court Releases Trio of Decisions Restricting Criminal Defendants’ Rights

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Late last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a trio of critically important decisions on criminal-constitutional issues.  Continuing a recent trend on the topic, criminal defendants got walloped.

1. Further Restricting Coram Nobis Relief

In Nunley v. State of Tennessee, the Court significantly restricted the measure of relief available under the writ of error coram nobis.  Coram nobis is a procedural vehicle used to help remedy wrongful convictions based on new evidence that is discovered after a defendant has been convicted.  Regrettably, the Court’s unanimous decision in Nunley narrowed the writ’s already limited scope even further.

Nunley involved a defendant who was convicted of aggravated rape in 1998 and alleged that DNA testing proved that he was innocent of the crime.  Mr. Nunley further alleged that in 2014, he discovered that the State had withheld critical exculpatory evidence when the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office included four previously-undisclosed exhibits in a responsive pleading that it filed in opposition to his petition for DNA testing under the Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act.

Upon review, the Court rejected Mr. Nunley’s plea for relief.  Three critical, novel holdings are worthy of emphasis:

First, the Court held that the writ of error coram nobis cannot be used to advance claims under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  A “Brady” claim is a claim that a defendant’s right to a fair trial was violated because the State withheld exculpatory evidence that it is constitutionally required to provide to defendants.  This oft-overlooked violation can be characterized as pervasive in Shelby County and other areas in Tennessee.  Further, when Brady violations are acknowledged—even in capital cases—the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court has given District Attorneys little more than a slap on the wrist.  Henceforth, however, Brady claims will no longer be cognizable via the writ of error coram nobis.  Instead, they must be brought via the Tennessee Post-Conviction Procedure Act.

Second, the Court held that “timeliness under the statute of limitations is an ‘essential element’ of a coram nobis claim that must appear on the face of the petition.”  Unless tolled, a writ of error coram nobis must be filed within one year of the date of a defendant’s conviction or it will be forever unavailable as time-barred.  Given, among other things, the overwhelming difficulties associated with reinvestigating one’s case from prison and Tennessee’s structurally deficient indigent defense system, this time limitation is so short that it renders the writ practically useless.  According to the National Registry of Exonerations, criminal defendants who were exonerated in 2017 “spent an average of 10.6 years incarcerated for their convictions.”  Similarly, in 2016, “[a]lmost two-thirds of the DNA exonerations in 2016 were murder cases, and the average time from conviction to exoneration was 21 years.”  Accordingly, absent rare and extraordinary circumstances, the one-year statute of limitations will operate to foreclose virtually all meaningful opportunities for relief under Tennessee’s coram nobis statute.

Third, and most significantly, the Court held that “coram nobis petitions with inadequate allegations are susceptible to summary dismissal on the face of the petition, without discovery or an evidentiary hearing.”  Importantly, the vast majority of coram nobis petitions are filed by pro se inmates who have no right or ability to have an attorney assist them.  As a result, this easily-overlooked bombshell will essentially end coram nobis relief across Tennessee, because vanishingly few pro se litigants will be able to draft a petition that successfully navigates the procedural morass necessary to state a cognizable claim for relief on their own.  Thus, when coram nobis petitions are filed, nearly all of them will now be dismissed summarily: (1) without a response; (2) without a hearing; and (3) without the opportunity to have an attorney file an amended petition to correct any shortcomings in the inmate’s pleadings.  As a consequence, for nearly all practical purposes, the writ of error coram nobis is now dead.

2.  Growing Expansion of “Good Faith” Exception to Unlawful Searches

In State v. Lowe, the Tennessee Supreme Court addressed a suppression issue in a gruesome case involving two murdered newborns.  The contested search warrant involved a magistrate’s “simple and good-faith clerical error of incorrectly indicating on one of three copies of the warrant that it was issued at 11:35 ‘PM’ while correctly indicating on the other two copies that it was issued at 11:35 ‘AM.’”  Although there is an extremely good reason why law enforcement is required to state the time of issuance on a search warrant—it helps “ensure that the warrant is obtained [legally] before the search is conducted, not [illegally] afterwards”—the error in Lowe genuinely appeared to have been a clerical one committed in good faith.

Following a similar set of circumstances, in 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted the “Exclusionary Rule Reform Act,” which provides that evidence “shall not be suppressed” if the court determines that the violation was the result of a good faith mistake or “technical” violation.  In a holding that would traditionally be important, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously determined that, in enacting the ERRA, the General Assembly encroached upon the exclusive province of the judiciary in violation of the Tennessee Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.  Accordingly, the Court held that “the ERRA represents an impermissible encroachment by the legislature upon this Court’s authority,” and it invalidated the ERRA as unconstitutional.

Even so, the Court nonetheless did precisely what the ERRA instructed, and it adopted its central legislative demand as a matter of Tennessee common law.  Notably, this is the second time in three years that the Tennessee Supreme Court has “asserted” its authority under the separation of powers doctrine, only to “acquiesc[e] to the standard proposed by the General Assembly” and adopt as a matter of Tennessee common law precisely what the legislature had promulgated as a matter of statute.

In sum: finding that “the magistrate’s good-faith mistake was inconsequential,” the Court held that “the exclusionary rule should not be applied under these circumstances,” and it declined to suppress the evidence gathered as a result.

3.  Wholesale Embrace of the “Good Faith” Exception

Third and finally, in a case relying on its just-released decision in Lowe, the Tennessee Supreme Court took up State v. Daniel, a decision involving whether the “good faith” exception should apply when law enforcement fails to provide a defendant with a copy of a search warrant at all.

One scholar has written about the Tennessee Supreme Court’s breakneck sprint toward a wholesale “good faith” exception in Tennessee.  Somewhat less noticed has been the fact that Tennessee Supreme Court has also changed the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure to accommodate it, bolstering its permanence.  Effective July 1, 2018, Rule 41 was amended to afford trial courts discretion to determine whether to exclude evidence that was gathered pursuant to a search warrant that is noncompliant with Rule 41.  See 2018 Tenn. Ct. Order 0002, No. ADM2017-01892 (Tenn. 2018).  The amendment altered the critical language of subsection (g)—which had stated that a motion to suppress “shall be granted” if a search warrant is defective—to read instead that the motion “may” be granted.  This rule change, however, is merely a matter of formality, having already been adopted informally by judicial fiat.  In 2015, in a cursory section on page 32 of its decision in State v. Corrin Reynolds, the Tennessee Supreme Court expressly held that the notion that the word “shall” in Rule 41 ever actually meant what it said “would be peculiar indeed.”

With this context in mind, the Court easily concluded that the “good faith” exception to unlawful searches applied in Daniel, finding that although the search warrant at issue was not provided to the defendant, the mistake was an honest one and did not result in any prejudice.  As a consequence, while continuing to characterize the good faith exception as a “narrow” one despite decision after decision indicating otherwise, the Court determined that the evidence would not be suppressed.

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Taken together, the Tennessee Supreme Court continues its steady campaign to restrict the rights of the criminally accused.  As a result, criminal defendants in Tennessee—particularly those who are innocent—may be forced to turn to federal courts for habeas corpus relief under equitable exceptions that excuse defendants’ failure to comply with inadequate state processes instead.

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Supreme Court Solicits Comments on Proposed Rule Changes

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Following the demise of proposed Rule 8.4(g) last month—a well-intentioned but dangerous and constitutionally infirm speech code—two additional rule changes have been proposed to the Tennessee Supreme Court for consideration.  The court is currently soliciting comments on both proposals.

The first proposal is a petition to amend Rule 25, governing the Tennessee Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection.  The proposed changes are detailed here.  I have a problem with one of the proposals, which caps attorney compensation at the randomly low amount of $500.00.  Such a rule would significantly interfere with what is typically a strongly-enforced right to contract.  It would also have no result other than ensuring that clients can’t get legal representation to handle qualifying fraud claims.  Simply stated: lectures on lawyers’ duties aside, no lawyer will work a complex case with a potential value of up to $250,000.00 for just $500 plus expenses, and there are other matters that are significantly more worthy of pro bono assistance.  My concerns about this portion of the proposed change are detailed in this Twitter thread, and the text of the change at issue is as follows:

18.01. No lawyer shall charge or accept compensation for prosecuting a claim on behalf of a claimant unless approved by the Board (a) on a contingency basis or (b) in excess of a flat fee of $500.00 plus reimbursement of expenses. Lawyers owe a duty to the public to assist individuals wronged by members of the profession and may count hours spent assisting a claimant in the prosecution of a claim as pro bono hours if conducted without receiving a fee.

The second proposed change is to amend Rule 13 to adjust the hourly rates and per-case caps for appointed indigent criminal defense work.  $9.7 million in additional and much-needed funding was recently appropriated for indigent defense in Tennessee, which is currently in a state of crisis.  The proposed changes are available here, and the TBA is soliciting input here.  The changes, if adopted, would modestly increase case caps and compensate both in-court and out-of-court work at $50/hour.

Compensating in-court and out-of-court work at the same rate is a marked and arguably legally mandated improvement.  However, as a whole, the changes are not nearly significant enough to address the catastrophic problems and perverse incentives involved in Tennessee’s indigent defense system.  In particular, retaining case caps ensures a serious and rapid conflict of interest in appointed cases, because after attorneys spend between 10-60 hours on a defendant’s representation (depending on the type of case), the attorney stops getting paid.  For instance, under even the improved case caps, a lawyer defending a client charged with First Degree murder will only be paid for the first 60 hours of work.  Further, even if the case at issue is deemed especially “complex or extended”—a characterization that should apply to every serious felony case—a lawyer will only be compensated for a maximum of 120 hours of work no matter how long the case lasts.  For cases that can often take years to resolve, the economic pressure to push a client to plead guilty after the cap has been hit is enormous.

For anyone interested in providing commentary on the proposed rules, written comments may be emailed to appellatecourtclerk@tncourts.gov or mailed to:

James Hivner, Clerk
Tennessee Appellate Courts
100 Supreme Court Building
401 7th Avenue North
Nashville, TN 37219-1407

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Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws: It Shouldn’t Be a Crime to Make Fun of Your State Representative. In Tennessee, It Is.

Republished with permission from Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws, a new organization seeking to ensure that Tennessee’s election statutes, policies, and regulations protect the rights of all Tennesseans to participate in democracy and support candidates of their choosing without unreasonable governmental interference.

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If you decide that you’ve had enough of the nonsense in Nashville and you send postcards to potential voters claiming your representative “has cauliflower for brains”—or if you publish or distribute any other “campaign literature in opposition to any candidate in any election” that you know to be false—police can arrest you for committing a Class C misdemeanor, lock you in a cage for a month, and fine you for every postcard you send.  Frighteningly, if Tennessee House Representative Karen Camper (D-Memphis) and Tennessee Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) get their way, the “crime” of distributing false campaign literature would be elevated to a Class A misdemeanor, allowing the state to lock you up for nearly a year.

What country is this, and what happened to America?

The often-misunderstood Citizens United v. FEC case turns eight years old this year.  In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects people from being thrown in jail for exercising their right to free speech.  What better time is there to explore why the ideas behind Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 are so bad?

It goes without saying that giving government officials the power to imprison people who criticize or make fun of them is a dangerous, slippery slope.  With that context in mind, it is also worth noting that the Camper/Tate bill that the General Assembly is considering this legislative session helps nobody more than it helps Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate.  If you can’t write that your representative has cauliflower for brains, what can you write?  You can write a bunch of boring technical, legal, or public policy jargon that most people don’t understand.  When people read those kinds of things, they either vote for people who already hold office—like Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate—or they get frustrated and don’t vote at all.  Either way, incumbents win.

In a case involving an Ohio state law that criminalized political speech the same way that Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 does, Cato Institute constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro once argued to the Supreme Court that “‘truthiness’—a ‘truth’ asserted ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right,’ without regard to evidence or logic—is . . . a key part of political discourse.”  He also recognized that “the government [is not] well-suited for evaluating when a statement crosses the line into falsehood.”  That’s doubly true for people who have both the power to make laws and a personal interest in the outcome of their next election.  (And ultimately, Shapiro proved right: Ohio backed away from trying to enforce its unconstitutional law against a nonprofit that wanted to put up a billboard.)

Further, Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 ignores that saying nasty things about the other guy or gal is as American as apple pie.  When Thomas Jefferson ran for president in 1800, he accused President John Adams of “trying to start a war with France,” “importing mistresses from Europe,” and committing that cardinal sin of “trying to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George.”  Adams, a known verbal pugilist, repaid Jefferson in kind, saying that if people elected the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, their homes would spontaneously combust.  (And thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, many people now know that Adams also called Alexander Hamilton a “Creole bastard”—but that was actually true!)

If politicians want to literally handcuff themselves from being able to joke about some of the more cartoonish candidates for Tennessee governor and U.S. Senate this year, I suppose they can be my guest—because that’s exactly what Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 does.  Of course, Tennesseans who support sensible election laws shouldn’t let this happen.  Vote against Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate in the next election.  After all, they have cauliflower for brains.

Paid for by Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws.  George S. Scoville III, Treasurer.  Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee, but we don’t think it should be a crime not to tell you that.

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Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws is a non-partisan, non-profit group of concerned citizens who care about protecting Tennessee’s democratic process.  Our mission is to ensure that Tennessee’s election statutes, policies, and regulations protect the rights of all Tennesseans to participate in democracy and support candidates of their choosing without unreasonable governmental interference.

We work toward this mission by supporting pro-democracy candidates for public office, initiating strategic litigation, engaging in direct lobbying, and promoting public awareness.   Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and please click here to support our work.

Estate of Jocques Clemmons Secures Return of Phone; Deletion of Social Media Data Procured by MNPD

In an important win against investigative abuse, the Estate of Jocques Clemmons has secured all of the relief that it sought in a February 9, 2018 lawsuit concerning the Metro Nashville Police Department’s efforts to search Mr. Clemmons’ cell phone and social media accounts following his death.  The MNPD and MNPD Detective Danny Satterfield—who procured the warrants at issue and was similarly sued by Mr. Clemmons’ estate—also formally acknowledged that the search warrants that were sought against Mr. Clemmons could “be construed as overbroad.”

Following a settlement agreement reached on March 2nd, the MNPD agreed to relinquish Mr. Clemmons’ cell phone to his mother, which it had refused to turn over for more than a year following Mr. Clemmons’ death.  Yesterday, in keeping with the parties’ settlement agreement, the MNPD also filed a Declaration of Compliance certifying that the defendants had “administratively expunged and destroyed all data in their possession retrieved from Jocques Clemmons’ Instagram account and Facebook account.”  Accordingly, earlier this morning, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued a Final Order terminating the case.

The lawsuit arose out of a fatal officer-involved shooting on February 2017, during which Mr. Clemmons was shot in the back.  Days after Mr. Clemmons was killed, MNPD Detective Danny Satterfield filed three search warrant applications seeking “any/all data contained and/or stored within” Mr. Clemmons’ Facebook account, Instagram account, and cell phone.  Without any stated time or content limitation whatsoever, the warrants specifically sought Mr. Clemmons’ “pictures, videos, audio, text messages, incoming/outgoing Facebook Messanger [sic] conversations, voicemails, chat logs, contact information, call logs, emails, internet data, Wi-Fi data, IP address(es), search history, maps, locations, GPS data, drafts, deleted files/folders, etc.”

Officer Satterfield’s search warrant applications stated under oath that he had probable cause to believe that all of the data on Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts and cell phone contained “certain evidence” of a crime committed by Mr. Clemmons, who was by then deceased and not subject to arrest.  A month later, however, the MNPD acknowledged that whether Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts or cell phone contained any relevant evidence was actually “unknown.”   Disturbingly, such efforts to rifle through decedents’ social media accounts and cell phones in search of damaging information after controversial officer-involved shootings are not isolated.

“While we remain disappointed that these three wildly overbroad and comically unconstitutional search warrants were ever sought or approved in the first place, we appreciate that the MNPD has now taken the steps necessary to remedy those prior illegalities,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who represented Mr. Clemmons’ estate. “The Clemmons family is very happy to have back his phone—which contains several cherished family photos—and it is satisfied that the MNPD has now destroyed the data that it unlawfully obtained from Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts following his death.”

Selected Case Documents:

Clemmons Complaint & Exhibits (MNPD Social Media Warrants)

*Settlement Agreement

Defendants’ Declaration of Compliance

Final Order

Selected Media Coverage:

-Patch: After A Year, Nashville Police Return Jocques Clemmons’ Phone

-The Tennessean: More than a year after Jocques Clemmons died, police returned his phone to family

-News Channel 5: Metro Police Return Clemmons’ Cell Phone After Lawsuit Is Filed

-The Tennessean: A year after Jocques Clemmons’ death, police still have his phone. His family wants it back.

-The Nashville Scene: It’s Been One Year Since the Jocques Clemmons Shooting

-The Nashville Scene: Why Does MNPD Need to Search Jocques Clemmons’ Social Media?

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Estate of Jocques Clemmons Files Suit Over Social Media Search Warrants

Nashville, TN—The Estate of Jocques Scott Clemmons, the Nashville man who was fatally shot in the back by Metro Nashville Police Officer Joshua Lippert on February 10, 2017, has filed a lawsuit regarding the MNPD’s successful efforts to search his social media accounts following his death.

Days after Mr. Clemmons was killed, MNPD Officer Danny Satterfield filed three separate search warrant applications seeking “any/all data contained and/or stored within” Mr. Clemmons’ Facebook account, Instagram account, and cellular telephone.  Without any stated time or content limitation whatsoever, the warrants specifically sought Mr. Clemmons’ “pictures, videos, audio, text messages, incoming/outgoing Facebook Messanger [sic] conversations, voicemails, chat logs, contact information, call logs, emails, internet data, Wi-Fi data, IP address(es), search history, maps, locations, GPS data, drafts, deleted files/folders, etc.”  Officer Satterfield also sought nearly identical information from Mr. Clemmons’ Instagram account and cell phone.

Mr. Clemmons was already deceased at the time of Officer Satterfield’s warrant applications.  Accordingly, he was not subject to arrest for any crime.  Even so, Officer Satterfield claimed that the warrants were necessary to investigate an “aggravated assault” that Mr. Clemmons had committed against Officer Lippert.  Notably, however, video released prior to Officer Satterfield’s warrant applications had already revealed that the altercation that Officer Satterfield claimed to be investigating had not occurred.

Officer Satterfield’s warrant applications stated under oath that he had probable cause to believe that all of the data on Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts and cell phone contained evidence of Mr. Clemmons’ supposed aggravated assault against Officer Lippert.  In a subsequent statement, however, the MNPD acknowledged that whether Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts or cell phone contained any relevant evidence was, in fact, “unknown.”  Based on the warrants’ lack of probable cause and several other constitutional deficiencies, Mr. Clemmons’ estate has filed suit seeking the return of all property seized as a result of Officer Satterfield’s defective search warrants.

“Mr. Clemmons’ Facebook and Instagram accounts had no conceivable bearing on the supposed crime that the MNPD claimed to be investigating, and Officer Satterfield’s comically unconstitutional warrant applications did not even bother to pretend that they did,” said Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Clemmons’ estate.  “Further, at the time that Officer Satterfield applied for the search warrants at issue, there was literally nobody on earth who was less likely to be arrested than Mr. Clemmons, who had been deceased for nearly a week.  These search warrants could not have been any less valid if they were written in crayon.”

“We hope that the Mayor and the MNPD will do right by Mr. Clemmons’ family by returning his cell phone and relinquishing whatever private information they pulled from his social media accounts in their effort to assassinate his character,” Horwitz added.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.  The plaintiff’s pleadings are copied below.

Plaintiff’s Complaint

MNPD Search Warrants and Search Warrant Applications

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Selected Media Coverage

The Tennessean: A year after Jocques Clemmons’ death, police still have his phone. His family wants it back.

The Nashville Scene: It’s Been One Year Since the Jocques Clemmons Shooting

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Court Denies Relief in Eighth Amendment Challenge to School Zone Law

Nashville, Tennessee—In an order issued earlier this morning, Calvin Bryant, a former college student and beloved Hillsboro High School football star who received a 17-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, was denied sentencing relief by Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier.  The injustice of Mr. Bryant’s sentence garnered substantial local and national media attention, in part because his first-time, non-violent drug offense landed him a punishment that was more severe than the sentence that he would have received had he committed a violent crime like Rape or Second Degree murder.  Mr. Bryant—who has already served a decade in prison—had also received an outpouring of support from national advocacy groups and elected officials across the political spectrum.  Judge Dozier’s order denying him relief is accessible here.

“[I]n certain situations, such as with the Petitioner, a strict interpretation and enforcement of the Act can lead to sentences that courts and some members of the community would be hard-pressed to describe as fair.  This is especially true in Davidson County, where much of the county, and especially those areas with a higher concentration of minority populations, falls within the ambit of the Act,” the Court wrote in its Order.  However, “while the Court recognizes the Petitioner’s contention that his sentence is severe, the Court is of the opinion that the sentence is not so unjust as to give rise to an inference of gross disproportionality.  Thus, the Court must find the Petitioner’s sentence is constitutional,” the Order reads.

“While we respect the Court’s opinion, the fact that Tennessee law punishes first-time, non-violent drug sales between adults more harshly than violent crimes like rape and murder cannot be justified under any rational sentencing scheme,” said Daniel Horwitz, Bryant’s attorney.  “We continue to believe that Mr. Bryant’s mandatory minimum sentence is grossly disproportionate based on applicable precedent, and I have every expectation that this opinion will ultimately be overturned.”

The Court’s order also expressly encourages Mr. Bryant and his many supporters to seek clemency from the Governor, which he will do while his appeal is pending.  “In order to secure Mr. Bryant’s early release from his grossly excessive sentence, I intend to petition Governor Haslam to commute Mr. Bryant’s first-time, non-violent drug offense to the “lesser” offense of rape,” Horwitz stated.

Selected Media Coverage

-Patch:  Nashville Case Highlights Drug-Free School Zone Reform Efforts

-Reason: How a Drug-Free School Zone Sent a Tennessee College Student to Prison For 17 Years

-Nashville Scene:  Council Members Petition Judge Over Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  He got 17 years for selling drugs near school. Now 12 Nashville officials are fighting on his behalf

-ScotBlog: Eighth Amendment Challenge Filed Against Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone” Law

-Families Against Mandatory Minimums: Calvin Bryant: 17 Years for a First Offense/FAMM Reacts to Denial in Calvin Bryant’s Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  Judge agrees man’s 17-year sentence for dealing drugs is ‘harsh,’ but leaves it in place

Selected Case Filings

Calvin Bryant Petition for Sentencing Relief

Appendix

Order

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Memphis Immigrant Wins Freedom Following U.S. Supreme Court Victory

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

Memphis, Tennessee—A Memphis man who secured a groundbreaking win before the U.S. Supreme Court this summer has officially won his freedom after a nearly nine-year legal battle to avoid being deported.  At the request of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, the indictment against Mr. Lee was formally dismissed earlier this month, and his case is finally over.

In 2009, Mr. Jae Lee—a South Korean immigrant and successful Memphis restaurateur—was indicted for what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit described as “a relatively small-time drug offense.”  Thereafter, Mr. Lee pleaded guilty based on the advice of his defense attorney, who assured Mr. Lee that he would not be deported if he did so.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lee, his attorney’s advice was wrong, and spectacularly so.  Under federal immigration law, possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute is considered an “aggravated felony,” rendering Mr. Lee deportable immediately.  Consequently, when the Government initiated deportation proceedings against him, Mr. Lee sought to withdraw his guilty plea, asserting that his attorney had ineffectively assisted him by misadvising him about the consequences of pleading guilty.  Noting the strong evidence of his guilt, however, the District Court refused to allow Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Lee’s case in order to clarify the legal standard that governs ineffective assistance of counsel claims with respect to immigration-related plea bargaining.  In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court held that “Lee has adequately demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea had he known that it would lead to mandatory deportation.”[1]  As a result, the Supreme Court permitted Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial instead.

The two dissenting Justices who ruled against Mr. Lee—Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito—held that Mr. Lee could not have been prejudiced by his attorney’s incompetent advice because Mr. Lee intended “to pursue a defense at trial with no reasonable chance of success.”[2]  As this author explained in his 2016 Harvard Latino Law Review article on the matter, however, this analysis is overly simplistic in several respects, and it significantly mischaracterizes the relevant prejudice inquiry.

Further, the notion that a weak defense necessarily means that a defendant will be convicted at trial is also quite simply wrong.  Several reasons support this conclusion, including the fact that the Government retains discretion not to take a case to trial at all for any reason.  As the above-mentioned article explains: “longstanding precedent entrusts to the Executive Branch’s ‘absolute discretion’ all decisions ‘not to prosecute or enforce, whether through civil or criminal process.’”  See Daniel A. Horwitz, Actually, Padilla Does Apply to Undocumented Defendants, 19 Harv. Latino L. Rev. 1, 8 (2016).  Accordingly, no matter how strong the evidence of a defendant’s guilt, all immigrants “are potentially eligible for relief from deportation [and from being criminally prosecuted at all] through the Executive Branch’s use of prosecutorial discretion.”

Mr. Lee’s case aptly proves this point.  After the Supreme Court permitted Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea back in June, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the indictment against him.  No specific reason was offered to justify the Government’s decision, and because prosecutorial discretion is absolute, the Government is not obligated to provide one.  If anyone were looking for a reason to support the U.S. Attorney’s decision to drop the charges, however, one need look no further than the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Mr. Lee’s own case, which explained—in a ruling against him—that:

“[W]e should not be read as endorsing Lee’s impending deportation. It is unclear to us why it is in our national interests—much less the interests of justice—to exile a productive member of our society to a country he hasn’t lived in since childhood for committing a relatively small-time drug offense.”[3]

Ultimately, the Government’s decision to drop the case represents a tremendous win for Mr. Lee and his new lawyer, Mr. Patrick McNally, who was part of Mr. Lee’s Supreme Court team and secured the final dismissal of his indictment.  “[S]omeone finally understood the harm that his [first] lawyer’s advice caused him,” Mr. McNally told The Tennessean after the Supreme Court’s ruling in June.

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[1] Lee v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1958, 1961 (2017).

[2] Lee v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1958, 1969 (2017) (Thomas, J., dissenting).

[3] Lee v. United States, 825 F.3d 311, 316–17 (6th Cir.), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 614 (2016), and rev’d and remanded, 137 S. Ct. 1958 (2017).

White County Judge Sam Benningfield Publicly Reprimanded for Instituting Inmate Sterilization Program, Retaliating Against Defendants

White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, the architect of a controversial sterilization-for-jailtime program that has been compared to eugenics and is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit, has been publicly reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.  The Board’s Order, entered November 20, 2017 and accessible here, concludes that Judge Benningfield violated Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 1.1 (Compliance with the Law) and Rule 1.2 (Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary).

Benningfield was publicly reprimanded for two separate incidents, both of which are referenced in this federal lawsuit against him.

First, Benningfield was found to have retaliated against a defendant for registering a valid hearsay objection—threatening to withdraw the entire county’s house arrest program and inform other defendants in the county that “they can thank [her]” for what happened if she failed to do so.  The defendant’s attorney ultimately withdrew his hearsay objection following Judge Benningfield’s threat.

Second, and more prominently, Judge Benningfield was found to have instituted an illegal sterilization-for-jailtime program in White County, Tennessee.  “[Y]ou now realize that this [program] could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper,” the public reprimand states.

Last week, several inmates who sued over the program sought an immediate order terminating it on the basis that it was still pending and violates the 14th Amendment.  The public reprimand indicates that since the inmates’ most recent filing, Judge Benningfield has entered an order ending the program.

Notably, the Board of Judicial Conduct’s public reprimand stops short of recommending Judge Benningfield’s removal from office.  (Attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing the inmates who sued Judge Benningfield, has previously stated that “if Judge Benningfield will not resign his office, he should be removed.“)   If sterilizing inmates and retaliating against defendants who exercise their rights in his courtroom does not merit removal, however, one might reasonably wonder what a judge could do that would.  Selected documents from the lawsuit filed against Judge Benningfield are available below.

Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief

May 15, 2017 Standing Order

July 26, 2017 Order Rescinding Previous Standing Order

Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Response in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Motion to Certify State Law Claims

Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

Selected media coverage about the case

-The Washington Post: Tennessee judge reprimanded for offering reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization

-The Tennessean: 2nd lawsuit challenges Tennessee county’s inmate birth control practice

-WSMV Channel 4: Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectomies, birth control implants

-BBC News: ‘We were guinea pigs’: Jailed inmates agreed to birth control

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Eighth Amendment Challenge Filed Against Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone” Law

Nashville, Tennessee—A groundbreaking constitutional challenge has been filed regarding Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone Act,” a flawed but well-intentioned law that has recently come under fire by several conservative groups because it “ensnare[s] many individuals who fall outside of the scope and purpose of the law” and has resulted in significant collateral consequences that have been “passed on to taxpayers without any public safety returns.”  The law has long been a target of criminal justice reformers, who have argued that the severe, mandatory minimum penalties contemplated by Tennessee’s School Zone law fail to make appropriate distinctions between people who sell drugs to children and people who don’t.  A recent poll of 531 registered voters in Tennessee indicated that 84% of Tennesseans support reforming the law, including 90% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans.  Among other things, the law operates to punish first-time, non-violent drug offenders more severely than defendants who are convicted of violent crimes like Rape and Second Degree Murder.

Calvin Bryant is a beloved former Hillsboro High School football star, a former Tennessee State University student, and a former Tennessean employee.  A decade ago, witnesses described him as a “model citizen” who had “impeccable” character, was “loving toward his family,” “took a great interest in the people who live[d] in his neighborhood,” and was “very generous” with the elderly.  In 2008, however, Mr. Bryant was indicted for selling ecstasy pills to an aggressive government informant who had contacted him repeatedly, reminded Mr. Bryant that “he had helped raise him,” insisted that he needed drugs to earn money to feed his family, and pleaded with Mr. Bryant to help him get some.

The government’s informant had thirty-nine (39) separate convictions on his record in Davidson County alone at the time of the drug sales at issue—many of them violent felonies.  Even so, the informant was paid more than $1,000 in taxpayer money and avoided jailtime in exchange for helping secure Mr. Bryant’s conviction.  Mr. Bryant’s first trial ended in a hung jury after several jurors concluded that Mr. Bryant had been entrapped.  After his second trial, however, Mr. Bryant was convicted of selling drugs.

Even though it was a first-time, non-violent offense—Mr. Bryant had no other criminal history of any kind—because Mr. Bryant’s residence was located within 1,000 feet of a school, Mr. Bryant received a mandatory minimum sentence of seventeen (17) years in prison.  As a result, Mr. Bryant received a considerably longer sentence for committing a first-time, non-violent drug offense than he would have received if he had committed a severe, violent crime such as Rape, Second Degree Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, or Attempted First Degree Murder.  Mr. Bryant has been incarcerated for the past decade.  He has at least six years in prison left to serve.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of his prosecution, Mr. Bryant has filed a novel constitutional challenge to the application of Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law to his case.  Notably, even the District Attorney who prosecuted Mr. Bryant has submitted an affidavit supporting his early release, stating that: “I fail to see how an additional six years of incarceration will improve Mr. Bryant’s amenability to correction or would be required to maintain public safety.  I additionally fail to see how his release at a time earlier than 2023—and after over nine years of incarceration—will deprecate the seriousness of the offenses for which he was convicted or significantly imperil public safety.”

Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law was designed to keep drugs away from children.  Nobody disputes that this is a laudable goal.  However, many people, including several elected officials and judges in Tennessee, have disputed whether the law was ever intended to apply to drug sales between adults inside an adult’s residence and outside of school hours—especially when a government informant has set up a drug transaction inside a school zone on purposeAs one Tennessee judge has explained, for example:

I simply do not believe that the Tennessee legislature intended the scope of the Act to include drugs brought into the protected school zone by law enforcement’s own design. This concept of luring, which commonly takes the form of an undercover sting operation, is inconsistent with the legislative intent of the Act and defeats the overall purpose of “creat[ing] a drug-free school zone to reduce the occurrence of illegal drug activity in and around school facilities in order to enhance the learning environment.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition paints a heartbreaking picture of a law that was never intended for cases like his but which applied to him anyway.  In Davidson County, he notes, so-called “drug free” zones “cover[] almost every habitable portion of Nashville and [nearly] all of its urban core.”  As a result, based solely on a prosecutor’s discretion, the law can be applied “to virtually every drug sale that takes place in Nashville.”  Even so, in the approximately two decades since the law was enacted, only 62 defendants have ever been punished with the school zone sentencing enhancement in Davidson County, which upgrades a defendant’s conviction by a full felony class and renders defendants ineligible for parole for decades.  Although, as a general matter, the law has been used sparingly to punish dangerous or repeat offenders, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that he has “the dubious distinction of being the only defendant in the history of this jurisdiction to receive Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432’s sentencing enhancement for a first-time offense.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition also highlights the fact that “Davidson County’s own Grand Jury has observed that the [District Attorney’s] previous application of the school zone enhancement was arbitrary and capricious,” having formerly been applied in a way that turned substantially on a defendant’s poverty.  It explains:

“[G]iven the location-based nature of the sentencing enhancement at issue, Mr. Bryant’s sentence was also enhanced dramatically based on his poverty alone.  If, for example, Mr. Bryant had lived in a wealthy, residentially-zoned suburb like Belle Meade, then he likely would have been eligible for release after serving just two years and five months in prison for the exact same conduct.  Because Mr. Bryant lived in the Edgehill Housing Projects, however, Mr. Bryant must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of at least fifteen (15) years before he even becomes eligible for parole.”

Further, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that before the new District Attorney reformed his office’s use of the school zone sentencing enhancement in 2014, “Davidson County’s application of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 was unmistakably race-based.”  “Although there is abundant evidence that people of all races in Nashville use and sell drugs at roughly equal rates,” his petition explains, fully “87% of defendants in this jurisdiction who received enhanced sentences under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 were people of color.”

Most importantly, however, Mr. Bryant notes that in the time since his conviction, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 has been reformed both judicially and operationally to avoid precisely the type of strict liability penalty that applied in his case.  Consequently, if Mr. Bryant had committed the exact same offense today, then he would likely have been subject to a maximum sentence of between two and eight years in prison, rather than seventeen years.  Further, given his status as a first-time, non-violent offender, Mr. Bryant may well have avoided prison time at all.

Mr. Bryant has asked Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier to declare his sentence unconstitutional as applied to the unique circumstances of Mr. Bryant’s case, arguing that these circumstances render his sentence excessive under both the Eighth Amendment and Article 1, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.  Mr. Bryant has also petitioned Judge Dozier for release while he submits an application for a pardon or commutation.  More than a dozen supporters—including Mr. Bryant’s own prosecutor, local politicians, business owners, friends, family members, and civil rights activists—have also filed affidavits in support of Mr. Bryant’s early release.  A hearing on Mr. Bryant’s petition is set for December 15, 2017 in Davidson County Criminal Court, Division 1.

“The fact that Tennessee law punishes first-time, non-violent drug sales more harshly than rape and murder is insane,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing Mr. Bryant.  “Mr. Bryant was a promising young college student and a pillar of his community at the time of his conviction, and he made a single mistake that has already cost him a full decade of his life behind bars.  Mr. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society, and he deserves to be released.  This is the most unfair sentence I have ever seen.”

Read Mr. Bryant’s Verified Petition for Sentencing Relief here.

Selected Media Coverage

-Patch:  Nashville Case Highlights Drug-Free School Zone Reform Efforts

-Reason: How a Drug-Free School Zone Sent a Tennessee College Student to Prison For 17 Years

-Nashville Scene:  Council Members Petition Judge Over Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  He got 17 years for selling drugs near school. Now 12 Nashville officials are fighting on his behalf

Selected Case Filings

Calvin Bryant Petition for Sentencing Relief

Appendix

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Eugenics is Illegal

By Daniel A. Horwitz

On Wednesday evening, News Channel 5 broke the unspeakable outrage that a judge in White County, Tennessee, had signed a standing order providing for a 30-day “reduction” in jailtime if an inmate submits to sterilization.  According to the report, 70 inmates have already accepted this “eugenics discount” in exchange for early release.  Somehow, each aspect of the story is even more shocking than the next.

To begin, General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield—the mastermind behind White County’s backdoor eugenics program—defended his efforts without any apparent sense of shame, telling Channel 5’s Chris Conte that: “I hope to encourage [inmates] to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to [sic] be burdened with children.”

Even worse, Judge Benningfield’s standing eugenics order has apparently been on file since May 15, 2017—meaning that an untold number of lawyers, judges, doctors, and law enforcement personnel have either acquiesced to it or simply turned a blind eye in the face of a policy that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court designates as a crime against humanity.

To be absolutely and unequivocally clear: eugenics is illegal.  In America, reproductive freedom is a fundamental constitutional right, and the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution forbids the government from treating people differently based on whether or not they choose to exercise their right to reproductive freedom.  Tennessee’s criminal code also contains several specifically-designated mitigating factors and enhancement factors that judges are permitted to consider during sentencing.  Whether a defendant has submitted to sterilization is not among them.

The framing of Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program as a “voluntary sentencing reduction” is also deeply troubling.  It is not.  Simply stated: In White County, Tennessee, any inmate who refuses to be sterilized is punished with an additional 30 days in jail.

Such a program is profoundly coercive—especially for defendants convicted of minor crimes who may avoid jail time entirely if they submit to sterilization.  Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows that this length of time is sufficient to send a person’s life into disarray, because an extra month in prison can and frequently does result in job loss, loss of one’s home, or loss of one’s children.  Of note, under Tennessee law, everyone is also at risk of being imprisoned for 30 days at any time for even the slightest traffic infraction based on law enforcement’s discretion.

In addition to its rank illegality and immorality, it goes without saying that using the coercive power of the state to promote sterilization also has severe potential for abuse.  As a historical matter, eugenics programs always target disfavored minorities—from Jews in Nazi Germany to black men in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Firmly in keeping with this tradition, Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program is reserved for White County inmates and apparently targets those suffering from drug addiction.  In this regard, it is no less disgusting.

Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program is an outrage.  He need not serve on the bench any longer, and he need not keep his law degree any longer.  Infuriatingly, this also is not the first time that an officer of the Court who has been charged with upholding the law has implemented a (very recent) sterilization program in Tennessee—a fact that is similarly unconscionable in its own right.  If Tennessee’s administrators of the practice of law took a fraction of the effort that they’ve expended trying to prevent qualified immigrants from taking the bar exam and redirected it toward removing people like Judge Benningfield from the profession, perhaps further abuses like this would be avoided.

Compounding the outrage is that nobody has yet filed suit over Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program during the two months that it has been in effect.  Whether initiated by the ACLU, a public defender, or a private defense attorney, such a lawsuit needed to be filed yesterday.  If you or a client of yours is affected by White County’s eugenics program and you want assistance pursuing the case, please feel free to contact me at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.  I will gladly take the case pro bono and donate the proceeds to the Holocaust Museum and the Tuskegee History Center.  A program like this violates what the United States Supreme Court has declared to be “one of the basic civil rights of man,” and nobody—least of all the Bar—should tolerate it.

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