The other three SCOTUS cases you should be watching this week

This Supreme Court term, there is something for everyone in the remaining decisions the Justices will deliver in the next few days. I would argue this term there are more “big” and mid-level cases that will affect the widest and most diverse audience of stakeholders in years: women, immigrants, college applicants, (alleged) drunk drivers, police, and skeptical voters. The issues challenged in these cases spotlight timeless debates over states’ rights, political corruption, and the limits of executive action. These topics cut across scores of different constituencies, and the decisions – assuming the Court avoids splitting 4-4 – will significantly impact Americans on both national and state levels.

If you know about the first three big cases it’s likely because those are the ones that got the most media attention. And while immigration, affirmative action, and abortion undoubtedly impact millions of people, so do the last three. Ask anyone if they think low voter turnout has something to do with distrust of elected officials, if they’re afraid of police encounters, or if they know someone who’s been pulled over for suspicion of or received a DUI? Likely they’ll answer “yes” to one, two, or all three. These cases aren’t glamorous. They’re not the ones protesters come out for. But they highlight pedestrian cases that most people have or will experience at some point in their lives, or, if nothing else, care deeply about when watching Law & Order.

Three mid-level cases you should watch this week:

On police stops, searches, and seizures…

Utah v. Strieff

On an anonymous tip that drugs were being held and distributed inside a house in Utah, Detective Douglas Fackrell parked outside the residence for three hours before stopping Edward Strieff, Jr. who had just exited the home. Detective Fackrell asked Strieff his name and for identification, and called in to see if Strieff had any outstanding warrants. Streiff did have a warrant out for a traffic violation and was arrested by Fackrell. The Detective then searched Streiff and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. After his conviction, Strieff moved to have the evidence excluded by asserting his 4th Amendment rights.

In police procedural cases when suspects are searched and evidence is seized, every step must be the result of a causal relationship to the event preceding it.The step of contention in this story is the point at which Fackrell called in to see if any outstanding warrant existed that would enable him to place Strieff under arrest and search him for drugs. The warrant wasn’t for drug possession or distribution, it was a minor traffic stop. The district and appeals courts of Utah ruled that although the investigatory search wasn’t warranted, the evidence could still be used against Strieff, however the Utah Supreme Court reversed.

Was Fackrell right about the warrant? Yes. Did Strieff have drugs and illegal drug paraphernalia on him? Yes. As the “fruit from the poisonous tree” metaphor implies, if the evidence taken is violates the suspect’s constitutional rights, the evidence may be tossed under the exclusionary rule. Thousands of people in cities across the country have outstanding warrants. Some of which, like Strieff, don’t know they do until such an encounter with police.

UPDATE: The Court voted 5-3 for Utah. Evidence seized, despite unlawful search, can still be used in court. Majority opinion written by Justice Thomas is here; Sotomayor’s dissent is a must-read.

On state DUI laws…

Birchfield v. North Dakota

The issue in this case is whether or not you can be criminalized for refusing to submit to a blood alcohol test during a police stop. The petitioners claim the intrusive nature of getting a blood sample, often with a needle, to substantiate intoxication violates their 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. States like North Dakota and Minnesota, where the cases derive, have laws punishing those who refuse to submit to blood alcohol tests. The petitioners argue the arrests, misdemeanor charges, and suspension of their licenses for refusing to submit to a blood test infringes on their 4th Amendment right. While field sobriety and breathalyzer tests are used and can be submitted into evidence against an impaired driver, holding offenders to the full extent of the law is much harder to do without scientific evidence that comes from measuring blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

Nine states have “No Refusal” laws in which police can take suspected drunk drivers to stations where nurses are on staff to draw blood immediately, without a warrant, and 21 states have “No Refusal” weekends employing the same practices in order to crack down on drunk driving. In states like North Dakota and Minnesota, if a driver fails the field sobriety test and the breathalyzer test, probable cause to get a warrant forcing the suspect to submit to a BAC test is possible but threatens a critical component to proving they’re intoxicated: time. A suspect’s BAC sobers up at a rate of roughly .01% per hour. In states that don’t have electronic warrants, asking a judge or magistrate for a warrant threatens the integrity of the evidence police need to prove the suspect was intoxicated. A question that this case may hinge on, that the justices focused much of oral arguments on, is how much more intrusive a blood draw is compared to a breathalyzer? And if it is more intrusive – and most of the justices seemed to agree it is – why couldn’t police just get an electronic warrant for the blood test which take minutes? The answers to both questions should come in a decision this week.

On political corruption by state officials…

McDonnell v. U.S.

Historically, courts have punished quid pro quo corruption, or “this for that” exchanges. In this case, the Court will decide whether or not former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell violated the federal bribery statute and the Hobbs Act by accepting gifts, personal loans, and campaign contributions from donor Jonnie Williams of Virginia-based Star Scientific Inc. in exchange for taking “official action.” Williams needed published academic research in order to obtain FDA approval for his dietary supplement Anatabloc. The government argued McDonnell’s acceptance of gifts from Williams and subsequent actions – such as arrangement of meetings with institutions like Virginia medical schools, state agents, and a reception for healthcare leaders hosted by McDonnell at the Governor’s mansion – constitute an abuse of power.

In the alleged exchanges, Williams paid McDonnell’s debts with a $50,000 loan and gave the family a check to cover McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding caterer dinners. He also paid for shopping sprees, golf trips, new golf clubs and shoes, vacations, and a Rolex. To top it off, Williams provided use of his Ferrari and contributed $100,000 to McDonnell’s campaign and PAC.

So what did Williams get out of this? According to McDonnell, “routine political courtesies: arranging meetings, asking questions, and attending events.” In short, nothing outside the legal and ethical lines. “Neither Williams nor Star received ‘a dime of state money’ or any other state benefit.” During oral arguments, many of the justices, in particular Justice Breyer, failed to see what the “that” was in the “this for that” bargaining, implying he and a majority of justices will take a very literal, very narrow approach to defining quid pro quo corruption.

At a time of remarkable political distrust and skepticism of the status quo, McDonnell’s case is timely.

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It may serve as an ideal opportunity for a correction by the Justices if the Court can get five to write an opinion that holds elected officials accountable for corruption, the consequences of which inhibit voter trust, voter efficacy, and civic engagement. This may also be optimal for the Justices given the relatively low stakes consequence for McDonnell, who has held off serving two years in prison until his case was decided by the Justices.

Highlighting these “mid-level” cases is not meant to diminish the importance of the rights of women, immigrants, and people of color. We all have only so much bandwidth for news and current events, so keep those three on the priority list. Perhaps they don’t get the attention the big ones do because they’re not as blatantly partisan as the big three, which makes it harder to predict what the Court will decide. Perhaps it also requires us to accept that the Court is more complex than the ideological labels (liberal, conservative) they’ll be both criticized and celebrated for by pundits and commentators this week.

I’ll keep you posted on updates of these and many more decisions in my “views from the Court” reports this week. Follow me on Twitter: @SupremeBystandr

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