Other Criminal Procedure Cases

In other criminal cases, the Court decided that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered "sexually dangerous" after they have served their prison terms. The case grew out of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, authorized the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates.  The law was challenged by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor.  They were supposed to have been released in 2008, but prison officials said there would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Congress had overstepped its authority when it enacted the law.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan argued for the government, and urged the high court to reverse. She compared the government's power to commit sexual predators to its power to quarantine federal inmates whose sentences have expired but have a highly contagious and deadly disease. "Would anybody say that the federal government would not have Article I power to effect that kind of public safety measure? And the exact same thing is true here."

In United States v. Comstock Justice Breyer, speaking for everyone but Justices Thomas and Scalia, reversed.  "The statute is a 'necessary and proper' means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others." Justice Thomas, joined in part by Scalia, dissented, claiming that there is nothing in the Constitution that expressly delegates to Congress the power to enact a civil commitment, nor is there anything which gives any other branch of the government that power.

A unanimous Court in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder ruled that immigrants convicted of minor drug offenses should not face automatic deportation, a decision that gives thousands of legal immigrants the chance to argue for leniency from immigration judges.

Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo was a legal resident who had lived in the United States since he was five, and was deported to Mexico after being convicted of possessing a single tablet of Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and served a ten-day sentence.  He had been convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana a year earlier and was sentenced to twenty days. Carachuri-Rosendo is in his early thirties, and his common-law wife, four children, and other family members are all U.S. citizens.

According to Justice Stevens, this type of offense is not what Congress had in mind when it mandated automatic deportation for any immigrant convicted of an aggravated felony.  The government had claimed that the second conviction put him in that category, even though local prosecutors did not increase the second offense to a drug-trafficking charge.  "We do not usually think of a ten-day sentence for the unauthorized possession of a trivial amount of a prescription drug as an 'aggravated felony.'"

Five years after the Court held federal sentencing guidelines to be advisory rather than binding [United States v. Booker (2005)], judges are still grappling with the meaning of the case.  Surveys find that most judges continue to follow them, but that there is a growing divergence.  The Booker decision told lower court judges to take the guidelines into account, but only as one of several factors to consider during sentencing. For the year ending 30 September 2009, 56.8 percent of sentences in federal courts were within the guidelines, down from 61.7 percent for 2006, the first full year after Booker. The percentages varied highly among jurisdictions. In the District of Columbia Circuit the average within the guidelines fell to 39.4, while the Fifth Circuit in the Midwest utilized them at a rate of 71.7 percent.

Since Booker the Supreme Court has consistently upheld district judges' discretion, and has told the courts of appeal that when it reviews a sentence, it is limited to deciding only whether it was reasonable.

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