Criminal Justice

International law again came before the Court in another case pitting an international convention against state procedures, this one complicated by the involvement of the President of the United States.

Two terms earlier, in Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon (2006), the Supreme Court had ruled that states need not adopt any special remedies to enforce an international treaty governing local police treatment of foreign nationals when arrested.  The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, signed by 168 nations including the United States, requires that police inform foreign arrestees that they have the right to contact their country's consulate, and if the detainees asks, the police must inform the consulate of the arrest. Reporters watched this case with more than passing interest because of recent criticism of the Court's citation of foreign law sources.

But by a 6-3 vote, Chief Justice Roberts in Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon held that even if foreign nationals could prove a violation of the Convention, states did not have to provide any special remedy such as suppression of evidence.  Although speaking respectfully in discussing the agreement as well as the International Court of Justice, in the end trials would be governed by U.S. procedural rules.

About this time the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that the Vienna Convention had been violated when 51 named Mexican nationals had not been informed of their rights under the Convention before being tried and convicted for various crimes, including murder, in Texas. The defendants should have been told by police upon arrest that they had the right to contact the Mexican consulate for legal assistance. In 2006 President George W. Bush, who disagreed with the ruling but said that the country had agreed to abide by the international court's decisions, issued a memorandum that ordered Texas courts to reopen the cases. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, defied the Bush order, ruling that the President did not have the authority under the Constitution to compel states to comply with an international court decision.

Medellin v. Texas tested this stance, and involved the conviction of Jose Ernesto Medellin for the rape and murder of Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, in June 1993.  He was told that he had a right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present, but was not told that he could request assistance from the Mexican consulate.  Medellin, who speaks, reads, and writes English, gave a written confession, and was convicted of murder in the course of a sexual assault, a capital offense in Texas, and a judge sentenced him to death in October 1994.

Texas conceded that Medellin was not told he could ask for help from Mexican diplomats, but argued that he forfeited that right because he had not raised the issue at the trial or at sentencing.  Moreover, the state had such strong evidence against Medellin that diplomatic intercession would not have made any difference. The case became a cause célèbre in international legal circles, and oral argument before the Court lasted nearly an hour-and-a-half with justices peppering attorneys for Texas and Medellin, as well as the Solicitor General, with question after question.

In a 6-3 opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court ruled against the President and said that international judicial opinions cannot be forced upon the states.  The chief executive has no authority to establish binding rules that pre-empt contrary state law, and the 1963 treaty by itself did not require states to take action.  In effect, the decision tracks that of the earlier Oregon case, and unless states are willing to abide by the Vienna Convention, they cannot be compelled to do so.

In July the World Court ordered United States authorities to do everything in their power to halt the executions of Mexicans on death row who had not been given access to legal assistance from their consulate.  Following the Medellin decision, President Bush denied that the international tribunal had any jurisdiction in the matter. At the beginning of August 2008 the Court, by a per curiam opinion, turned down Medellin's request for a stay of execution, and he was put to death.

The Court also heard several cases that brought into question provisions of the Bill of Rights.  In one case, the justices had to decide whether the right to represent oneself at a trial extends to those, who while competent to stand trial, may not be competent to conduct their own defense.

Ahmad Edwards was accused of attempted murder in a 1999 department store robbery. Three times he was found incompetent to stand trial, but in 2005, after receiving psychiatric help, he was found competent, and demanded that he be allowed to represent himself.  The trial judge said no, but two Indiana appeals courts said that under Supreme Court rulings he had the right to do so. (Faretta v. California [1975]) Indiana appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing for a standard that would require people defending themselves to be able to communicate coherently with a court or jury.

In Indiana v. Edwards, Justice Breyer spoke for the 7-2 majority, and said that the question was answered neither by the Faretta decision nor by a later one, Godinez v. Moran (1993), which allowed a mentally ill defendant to waive the right of counsel and plead guilty. Rather, Breyer argued, the key issue was that conducting a defense at trial without a lawyer's help requires a higher degree of competence than that possessed by Edwards, and that in order to ensure a fair trial the judge was within his authority to deny Edwards's request.  Breyer declined to set any arbitrary definition of competence, and would leave that decision to trial judges evaluating individual cases.

The decision drew a spirited dissent from Justice Scalia, joined by Thomas, who said that that the ruling "seems to me the epitome of both actual and apparent unfairness." The only time the Court had previously accepted denial of self-representation was when there was a threat to the orderliness of a trial, a condition totally lacking here.  He called the decision a blow against "the dignity of individual choice."

In another Sixth Amendment case, Rothgery v. Gillespie County, Texas, a near-unanimous Court held that the right to counsel attaches at a defendant's first appearance before a magistrate, whether or not the prosecutor is also on hand. The decision struck down parts of the Texas "magistration" system whereby a person accused of a crime goes before a magistrate judge, has bail set, and can be imprisoned, all without the involvement of a prosecutor or the appointment of defense counsel.

Walter Rothgery had been picked by Texas police on an erroneous California report, and was arrested as a felon with a firearm. He was jailed but posted bail. It was not until six months after his initial appearance that a judge appointed counsel, at which point the lawyer documented the erroneous report and had Rothgery's indictment dismissed.

Justice Souter wrote that when a state's commitment to prosecute is strong enough to prompt arraignment and imprisonment for an individual, "by that point it is too late to wonder whether he is accused within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment, and it makes no practical sense to deny it." The ruling now forces Texas to behave as do nearly all other states in the Union who appoint counsel before or just after an initial appearance before a judge. Only Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the majority misunderstood the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment.

A case with unusual facts raised the right of a defendant to face his or her accusers. In September 2002 Dwayne Giles shot his ex-girl friend Brenda Avie six times, killing her and fleeing the scene. Three weeks before her death, Avie told a police officer responding to a domestic violence call that Giles had choked her and threatened to slash her with a knife. The trial court allowed the statements to be introduced at Giles's murder trial under a California law that allows juries to hear such threats when a witness is unavailable to testify in person.  Giles appealed, saying that allowing this evidence violated his right to face his accusers.

In a 6-3 ruling that evoked howls of protest from domestic violence opponents, the Supreme Court wiped away the conviction and sent the case back to the lower courts.  Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in Giles v. California, declared that "domestic violence is an intolerable offense that legislatures may choose to combat through many means. But for that serious crime, as for others, abridging the constitutional rights of criminal defendants is not in the State's arsenal." The state could, in its retrial, introduce evidence that Giles had shot Avies in an effort to stop her from testifying.

Justice Souter, joined by Ginsburg, agreed in general with Scalia's historical analysis, but believed that prosecutors could introduce evidence that Giles had engaged in a pattern of domestic violence, perhaps opening the door to a finding that he had forfeited his right to confront a missing witness.

"The defendant here knew that murdering his ex-girl friend would keep her from testifying," wrote Justice Breyer in dissent, "and that knowledge is sufficient to show the intent that law ordinarily demands." He was joined by Justices Stevens and Kennedy.

The justices also had to figure out whether the Fourth Amendment was violated when an officer made an arrest based on probable cause but prohibited by state law. Police stopped a car driven by David Lee "Chubs" Moore, after hearing that a person named "Chubs" was driving with a suspended license. After the stop they determined that in fact the license had been suspended, and arrested him on a misdemeanor charge. In a subsequent search they discovered he was carrying 16 grams of crack cocaine.  Under state law the police should have simply issued Moore a summons and not arrested him, and at his trial for cocaine possession Moore filed a motion to suppress the evidence, since the arrest had been in violation of state law. The state courts agreed, on grounds that while there may be a search incident to an arrest, there can be no search incident to a citation. The state appealed.

A unanimous Court, in Virginia v. Moore, speaking through Justice Scalia, held that the police made an arrest based on probable cause, and even though the arrest was prohibited by state law, this did not violate the Fourth Amendment.  At the time of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, neither statutory nor common law could be interpreted to mean that the Fourth Amendment incorporated state law. Thus when an officer has reason to believe that a person has committed even a minor crime, the arrest is constitutionally reasonable, and evidence procured in the subsequent search allowable at trial.

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