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On the Docket’s Preview of March Supreme Court Arguments

The Court is making the jump from seven cases heard in February to eleven in March, while still maintaining its eight-justice bench. Each case is fairly notable, with two important patent cases, several criminal law cases, and a case significantly impacting religiously affiliated organizations and their employees. These cases show that the bench is prepared to issue opinions that have the potential to bring significant shifts to certain areas of the law, and is ready to opine on issues that have the potential to be highly politicized.

Criminal law scholars have a lot to look forward to in March. The Court will clarify the Brady doctrine and revisit a thirty-year old whodunit murder, review the provocation doctrine and the use of reasonable force, and touch on automatic deportation, plea deals, and ineffective assistance of counsel. First, in Turner v. United States, the Court will revisit a 1984 murder due to charges that the prosecution withheld important exculpatory evidence. This case will help clarify how lower courts apply Brady to after-the-fact evidence. Second, in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, the Court will decide whether the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule conflicts with Graham v. Connor, directing the manner in which officers may be charged with excessive force in violation of Fourth Amendment rights, and whether an incident that gives rise to use of reasonable force is an intervening and superseding event that breaks the chain of causation in a Fourth Amendment violation. Finally, in Lee v. United States, the Court will resolve a circuit split and determine whether it is always irrational for a longtime resident of the United States to reject a plea deal when faced with automatic deportation, even when the case will likely result in a guilty verdict.

On the Docket has researched the parties’ court filings and summarizing the factual and procedural history of each case so that readers may acquaint themselves with each before they are argued. When the opinions are handed down, On the Docket will provide in-depth analyses from legal scholars who are acutely knowledgeable of each decision’s impacts. But for now, the previews below will provide you with all the information you need to keep up with the Court.

March 20

Murr v. Wisconsin
No. 15-214; Wis. Ct. App.

Granted before the passing of Justice Scalia, Murr v. Wisconsin revisits Penn Central’s “parcel as a whole doctrine,” for what constitutes a regulatory taking under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The issue is whether, in a regulatory takings case, the “parcel as a whole” concept establishes a rule that two legally distinct, but commonly owned contiguous parcels, must be combined for takings analysis purposes.

In 1960, William Murr purchased a parcel of land, “Lot F,” located on the St. Croix waterfront in Wisconsin, on which he built a log cabin for himself and his family. Three years later, Murr purchased an adjoining parcel of land, “Lot E,” for investment purposes. Murr made no improvements to Lot E. In 1995 Murr transferred title in Lot F to his six children, and the following year, 1996, transferred title to Lot E.

The six children wished to make improvements to the cabin, including raising it to prevent flood damage. To do so, they needed funds—funds that they could recoup by selling Lot E. Upon approaching the city council for an application to sell the land, they were informed that a city ordinance had rezoned the area, and both parcels would be treated as one.

The new zoning regulations required a net project area of at least one acre to allow separate use or sale. The zoning regulation subtracts slope preservation zones, floodplains, road rights-of-way, and wetlands from the total land calculation to arrive at the net project area. Therefore, while Lot E covers approximately 1.25 acres, the net project area is only 0.5 acres. As a result, the Murrs could not sell Lot E without also selling Lot F.

Following the denial of their application from the city council, the Murrs sought review of the decision in circuit court. The Wisconsin circuit court affirmed the city council’s action, as did the Court of Appeals. The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied the Murrs’ petition for review.

The Murrs then sued the State of Wisconsin and St. Croix County, where the parcels are located, arguing that this decision deprived them of all use of Lot E. They argued the size of the lot made it unusable for commerce, making a single-family home the only viable use of the lot. They then argued that without the ability to sell or develop the land, the lot was rendered useless.

The circuit court granted Wisconsin’s Motion for Summary Judgment holding, inter alia, that all uses of the land were not foreclosed because the law required the court to view the Murrs’ property as a whole, and not each lot individually. The Murrs appealed to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which affirmed the decision. The Wisconsin Supreme Court chose not to review the case, and the Murrs filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court.

Both sides have notable amici supporting their arguments. Nine states filed an amicus brief in support of the Murrs. Nine other states filed an amicus brief in support of the State of Wisconsin and St. Croix County, as did former Vice President Walter Mondale, who, as a Senator, co-sponsored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act under which the St. Croix River was designated for protection. The United States, under the Obama Administration, filed a brief in support of Wisconsin and St. Croix County. The outcome of this case will have national implications should it add more analysis to what constitutes the denominator in a takings law analysis.

Howell v. Howell
No. 15-1031; Ariz.

Veterans are entitled to a retirement pension based on, inter alia, the number of years served. Veterans who suffer from disabilities as a result of their service are also entitled to receive disability compensation. If a veteran is both retired and disabled, in order to receive disability he or she must waive an equivalent pension portion. This is largely because disability payments are non-taxable entitlements. Under the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act of 1982, benefits can be deemed property for the purposes of divorce agreements.

Mr. Howell, a member of the Air Force, and Mrs. Howell divorced in 1991. As part of their agreement, Mrs. Howell received half of her husband’s Air Force pension. In 2005, Mr. Howell waived a portion of his pension to receive disability due to degenerative joint disease in his shoulder. Disability was not included in the original divorce agreement, but Mrs. Howell claims, and Arizona agrees, that the agreement gives her a right to half of Mr. Howell’s total benefits, including any received after the divorce.

The outcome of this case will remedy a split among at least ten states. Five states, including Arizona where this case originates, allow ex-spouses to claim a share of a veteran’s disability payments. The other five do not.

The conflict resides between Arizona’s order and the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act. The Act left to states the question of whether “disposable retired pay” is solely the property of the service member or the couple’s property, but defined the term as the service member’s retired pay, not including any waiver resulting from disability entitlements. Mr. Howell says this clearly bars his ex-wife from receiving half of his disability pay. Mrs. Howell relies on the timing of their divorce and argues the opposite.

The timing of the divorce is critical to the preemption claim. In Mansell v. Mansell, the Court held that retirement pay that has been waived as a result of disability payments is not property that can be divided upon divorce. But the Mansell case dealt with a spouse that waived a pension portion prior to the divorce. Here, Mrs. Howell argues that because Mr. Howell had not yet applied for disability when they divorced, Mrs. Howell is still entitled to half of his total benefits as contemplated in their divorce agreement. Mr. Howell relies on the definition of “disposable retired pay” to show that she is not, and that Arizona’s order is preempted by the Act.

The outcome of this case will clarify for many veterans and their spouses what options they have if they choose to file for divorce, how states can divide critical benefits between spouses, and whether disability benefits are divisible property at all.

March 21

Microsoft Corp. v. Baker
No. 15-457; 9th Cir.

Granted prior to Justice Scalia’s death, oral arguments in Microsoft v. Baker will finally be held more than a full year after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Surprisingly, the case does not touch on antitrust or intellectual property issues commonly associated with a technology company such as Microsoft. Rather, the Court will be reviewing a civil procedure question—whether a federal court of appeals has jurisdiction to review an order denying class certification after named plaintiffs voluntarily dismiss their claims with prejudice.

Plaintiffs brought a class action case against Microsoft. They claimed that when playing games on the Microsoft Xbox 360, an immensely popular gaming system, vibrations would cause the discs to become loose and scratch against the system, rendering those discs useless. According to Microsoft, only 0.4% of systems were faulty in this manner. The district court denied class certification and stated that the plaintiffs would have to come forward individually. As the damages in question are relatively low, and the cost of litigation, especially against Microsoft, is high, a class action was the only feasible means for the plaintiffs’ to proceed.

Upon the district court’s denial of class certification, the parties stipulated to a dismissal of the case with prejudice—meaning plaintiffs may not re-litigate the case. In spite of the dismissal, the plaintiffs appealed the denial of their class certification to the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals, which generally can only hear appeals from final decisions of lower courts, noted that it had jurisdiction to hear the case, and reversed, stating that when the district court struck the class action allegations from the complaint, it abused its discretion. The Ninth Circuit denied Microsoft’s request for an en banc review. Whether the Court accepts the plaintiffs’ view that the voluntary dismissal was a final order from which an appellate court can review, or Microsoft’s view that the conditional nature of the dismissal means that there is no appellate court jurisdiction, class action plaintiffs, attorneys, and civil procedure professors will all intently await the outcome.

Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc.
No. 15-1189; Fed. Cir.

Patent folks: this is a case to note. Refurbished toner cartridges might soon make a big splash in both the domestic and international patent worlds.

What started as an international infringement action by Lexmark against Impressions for refurbishing toner cartridges will be an important case followed closely by the patent community. In a nutshell, the doctrine of patent exhaustion holds that the patent owner has the right to restrict the sale of his or her patented product at the time of the first authorized sale. Resale, however, does not constitute patent infringement. Thus, based on this understanding of patent exhaustion, Impressions did not infringe on Lexmark’s patent when they bought used cartridges from Lexmark’s customers only to refurbish and resell them.

After hearing the case, the Federal Circuit placed a bit of a spin on this doctrine. Specifically, they held that resales can be restricted so long as those restrictions are communicated to the buyer at the time of sale (a “conditional sale”). As this was an international matter, they also held that the sale of a U.S. patented product abroad does not exhaust the patent owner’s U.S. patent rights. Thus, the patent holder can still restrict importation of that product inside the U.S even after initially selling abroad.

As the case involves both domestic and international patent exhaustion doctrine, it will impact U.S. patent holders, U.S. buyers, and international buyers. The Supreme Court will likely clarify once and for all whether buyers abroad may resell in the U.S. without infringing on the original patent. Further, the decision could have great implications on international commerce as the outcome could affect a patent holder’s willingness to sell abroad. If international buyers can just resell a product in the U.S. for lower costs, without infringement, then patentees will likely be more hesitant to sell their products on an international scale. The decision could also impact how other countries choose to do business with the United States, as they might face higher prices because of the need for patentees to price the value of the U.S. patent rights into the price of the product.

March 22

County of Los Angeles v. Mendez
No. 16-369; 9th Cir.

From the officers’ perspective, this case was a tragic accident resulting from a justifiable fear that their lives were in danger. From the citizens’ perspective, it was a case of excessive force resulting from the officers’ failure to respect the boundaries of the Constitution. In what may be its most significant decision on police practices this term, the Court will consider whether the use of force by police in self-defense is unreasonable if the police created the dangerous circumstances through a Fourth Amendment violation.

The facts of the case are in some dispute, but both parties agree on the basic timeline of events. While searching for a missing parolee, Los Angeles police officers followed a tip to the home of Paula Hughes. Two deputies, Christopher Conley and Jennifer Pederson, went to the back of the house to clear the yard. They found a small windowless shack, the home Angel Mendez and his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Garcia. Without announcing themselves, police pulled open the door of the shack; they saw Mendez inside, who they perceived to be pointing a rifle in their direction. The officers fired a total of 15 bullets into the shack, hitting Mendez and Garcia, who was pregnant at the time. In reality, Mendez was holding a BB gun. Mendez and Garcia suffered multiple injuries, including a partial amputation of Mendez’s leg.

Mendez and Garcia sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming infringement of their constitutional rights when police entered the shack without a warning, failed to knock and announce their presence, and used excessive force. The district court found that the officers should have known that the shack was being used as a dwelling, and that their entry without a warrant and without announcing their presence therefore violated the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, although their use of force was reasonable, the court held it was nonetheless excessive because it was the officers’ Fourth Amendment violations that caused the need to use force. The Ninth Circuit affirmed under the so-called “provocation doctrine,” which holds that officers can be responsible for reasonable use of force if their own conduct created the need to use force in the first place.

The County urges the Court to reject the provocation doctrine. Because the deputies’ use of force was reasonable under the standard in Graham v. Conner, the County argues, Mendez’s and Garcia’s claim of excessive force should fail. The provocation rule, the County argues, contravenes the Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents because it analyzes the reasonableness of the use of force from the moments leading up to a search or seizure, rather than at the moment of the search or seizure as required. Moreover, the provocation doctrine frustrates the purposes of § 1983 because it allows any action to serve as a provocation, regardless of whether it violated established law. Alternatively, the Ninth Circuit would have held the officers liable because their unlawful entry into the shack without a warrant was the proximate cause of the Mendez’s and Garcia’s injuries. The County asks the Court to reject this alternative holding because the officers’ use of force was not tied to the failure to obtain a warrant.

Mendez urges the Court not to review the Ninth Circuit’s findings that the deputies were the proximate cause of his and Garcia’s injuries because the Court declined to grant certiorari on that question. He asks the Court to review only whether his and Garcia’s conduct was a superseding cause that led to their injuries, and to reject the claim. Mendez argues that a victim’s conduct must be culpable and unforeseeable to be a superseding cause. Should the Court reach the constitutional question, Mendez urges the Court to retain the provocation doctrine, which he argues is consistent with the totality of the circumstances test of reasonableness applicable in the Fourth Amendment context.

Water Splash v. Menon
No. 16-254; Tex. App.

American exceptionalism is the unstated principle lurking behind this case of international civil procedure, with one side urging that the United States join the global consensus on interpreting a treaty for serving process and the other insisting the U.S. courts keep international law out of their decision-making.

The treaty at issue is the Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents, an agreement among 71 nations governing service of process crossing international borders. The question is whether the Convention allows service of process through the mail, an issue on which state and federal courts in the United States have split. Each signatory to the Convention must establish a Central Authority to receive and serve documents. Nonetheless, Article 10 confirms that, provided the state in which service is made does not object, litigants may still “send judicial documents, by postal channels,” while either judicial officials or anyone with interest in a lawsuit may “effect service of judicial documents” directly through the courts or competent officials. Because the Article uses “send” in one place and “effect service” in others, it is unclear if “send” includes effecting service and allows litigants to serve process directly through the mail. The rule of meaningful variation, as employed in statutory interpretation, would suggest that the use of different words carries distinct meanings for each.

The facts of the underlying case are simple enough: Water Splash, maker of aquatic recreational areas for playgrounds, suspected its employee, Tara Menon, of using Water Splash’s proprietary information to submit bids on behalf of the company’s competitors. Water Splash fired Menon and filed suit in Texas state court on a variety of state-law claims. Because Menon lives in Canada, Water Splash attempted to serve process, first through the Texas secretary of state. When those documents were returned as unclaimed, Water Splash tried again, serving process through first-class mail, certified mail, Federal Express, and email. Menon did not reply to any of those attempts to serve process, and the Texas state court entered a default judgment against her. On appeal, Menon argued the judgment was invalid because Water Splash was obligated to serve process in accord with the Convention, which does not allow service of process through the mail. A divided panel of the state appeals court vacated the judgment, agreeing with the Fifth Circuit, which has determined that the convention does not allow service by mail.

Water Splash contends that since the entire purpose of the Convention is to govern international service of process, all provisions should be read to further that purpose, regardless of the verb used. Moreover, looking to the history of the Convention and those that preceded it, it suggests that the variation may have been an example of carless drafting or a mistake made in rendering the Convention from French into English. Menon, for her part, views the text of the Convention as “unambiguous”: Since two sections refer explicitly to how to “effect service,” a section referring to how to “send judicial documents” necessarily excludes service of process. She reads the Convention to require the use of government bodies (either the Central Authority or the judicial system) to serve process initiating the lawsuit, while allowing the use of direct mail for follow-up documents like motions and discovery requests.

At a higher level, however, the parties disagree over the types of evidence the Court may consider in resolving the question. Arguing that a treaty is more akin to a contract than ordinary legislation, Water Splash urges the Court to look for intent among the parties that acceded to the Convention. It notes that the signatories understand the Convention to allow service by mail, as does the federal executive branch (the United States has filed a brief as amicus curiae on Water Splash’s behalf). Furthermore, scholarly opinion favors Water Splash’s position, with one commentator noting that, at least through the early 1990s, no court outside the United States had ever interpreted the treaty to bar service by mail.

Menon questions the legitimacy of these sources of meaning, arguing that the Court should resolve the question based on the unambiguous text without resorting to extrinsic sources. Moreover, she argues that “customary international law” has no place in the way the U.S. courts interpret treaties, as it would encroach on the constitutional power of the Senate and the President to ratify treaties and the power of the judiciary to determine the law.

With the use of international law in U.S. courts ranking as one of the more hot-button questions in public debate, the most consequential aspect of the Court’s decision may not be its resolution of the precise question, but the method it uses to arrive at that decision.

March 27

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton
No. 16-74; 7th Cir.

On its face, this case does not seem as though it would induce headlines like The Atlantic’s: “The Supreme Court Case that Could Bankrupt Religious Schools and Hospitals.” The case rests on the Court’s interpretation of “established” as used in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

The Act requires employers to responsibly populate employees’ retirement plans to ensure those employees receive adequate pensions upon retirement. If the employers cannot afford the pension plans upon retirement, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation acts as a safety net. One wrinkle: houses of worship, and religiously affiliated organizations that satisfy certain criteria, that establish and maintain benefit plans are exempt. The question is whether “establish and maintain” means that houses of worship must be the ones to establish, or whether religiously affiliated organization that are also exempt may also establish and maintain benefit plans.

In 2014, employees of Advocate Health Care Network, a hospital associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the United Church of Christ (and two other religiously affiliated health care organizations) brought suit claiming that because actual churches did not establish the pension plans, the hospital cannot be exempt from supplying employees with adequate pensions.

Each party in this case stands to lose significant amounts of money no matter the outcome. If decided for Petitioners, employees stand to continue to lose their pension funds, if their organization cannot afford to pay them, and they do not have the safety net of the PBGC. If Respondents prevail, religiously affiliated organizations will have to redistribute money used to continue operations and put that money toward reconfiguring contracts with employees. This reconfiguration could end up harming employees as budgets will be stretched further and positions may end up being cut.

The outcome of this case also has a First Amendment aspect: Does it violate the Establishment Clause to direct these religiously affiliated organizations to invest their money in specific ways? Or should religiously affiliated organizations, like houses of worship, be allowed to determine how to spend their own money? Or will the Court determine that employee protection is more important?

TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands
No. 16-341; Fed. Cir.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b), patent infringement actions may be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides. But 28 U.S.C. § 1391(c) defines residency for all venue purposes and deems that a corporate entity may reside in multiple judicial districts. This case revisits Fourco Glass Co. v. Transmirra, a 1957 Supreme Court case holding that “reside” means the place where the defendant is incorporated, and that § 1400(b) cannot be supplemented by § 1391(c). The Federal Circuit interpreted “reside” to mean anywhere a corporation makes sales. The issue in the case is whether § 1400(b) should be the sole and exclusive provision governing venue.

The Federal Circuit’s interpretation of “reside” when applied to corporations that sell their products nationwide, allows corporations to forum shop and cluster in patent holder-friendly jurisdictions. The majority of patent infringement cases are heard in a limit number of jurisdictions, most notably the Eastern District of Texas.

TC Heartland argues that the patent venue statute defines the exact jurisdiction of the courts, and that the Supreme Court should rely on its decision on Fourco and reverse the Federal Circuit’s decision. Kraft argues the Federal Circuit’s broader interpretation is more appropriate.

TC Heartland is headquartered in Indiana while Kraft is organized in Delaware, with Illinois as its principal place of business. Kraft initiated the suit in Delaware, claiming that TC Heartland’s liquid water enhancer products—for example MiO, Crystal Light, and Dasani Drops—infringed upon several of Kraft’s patents. TC Heartland moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and moved to transfer venue to Indiana, arguing that it has no connection to Delaware except to ship a small percentage of its orders. The district court denied Heartland’s motions.

The Federal Circuit held that Fourco’s definition of “reside” was no longer good law after Congress amended the definition of venue as applied to corporations. The Supreme Court will now clarify whether Fourco is still good law that narrows the venues in which patent holders may file infringement actions, or whether the Federal Circuit is correct in their broader interpretation that allows venue in any state where the corporation makes sales. Together, this case and Impression Products (oral argument on March 21) have the power to significantly change the rights of patent holders. First, by limiting where they may bring actions and second, the exhaustion of the patent holder’s rights when the product is sold.

March 28

Lee v. United States
No. 16-327; 6th Cir.

Does it make sense to deport a productive member of society to a country he hasn’t lived in since childhood? Is it rational for a defendant to consider immigration consequences when determining whether to take a plea deal that will automatically deport him? What should a person be willing to do to avoid imminent deportation? These are questions the Supreme Court will soon get to answer. In an era of contentious debate with respect to immigration, Lee v. United States could not be more timely.

Jae Lee has lived in the U.S. since 1982 after immigrating with his family as a child from South Korea. He has never become a U.S. citizen but lives here legally. He worked as a restaurateur in Memphis but after being charged with possession of ecstasy with the intent to distribute, he faced the possibility of deportation.

And that’s where this story begins. The government had all of the evidence necessary to persuade a jury to convict Mr. Lee, and his defense attorney advised him to plea guilty—his best shot for a lighter sentence. But Mr. Lee’s attorney “forgot” to mention a major detail: a guilty plea would result in automatic deportation. In fact, he told Mr. Lee the exact opposite—that a guilty plea would not have immigration consequences. Mr. Lee found out much later that his guilty plea would result in deportation once he completed his one-year sentence in prison.

The government concedes that this misrepresentation constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel, but under Supreme Court precedent, the question that needs to be answered is whether the deficiency—failing to inform your client about mandatory deportation—prejudiced the defendant. Would the outcome have been substantially different had he known about the risk of deportation and rejected the plea deal? Would rejecting the plea deal be rational?

This is where the parties substantially differ. The government points to the fact that Mr. Lee had only a slim chance of winning at trial due to the evidence against him. Thus, they contend, a rational person would have taken the plea deal even knowing the immigration consequences because he would not have to go to prison for as long. In contrast, the defense argues that it would have been perfectly rational for Mr. Lee to reject the plea deal if he had known about deportation. Someone who has spent his entire life in the U.S. may prefer to take his chances at trial, rather than automatically face deportation to a country he doesn’t even know, the defense claims.

While the case itself will not have a direct impact on most immigrants, people are certainly curious to hear the Court’s answer as to whether it is always irrational for a longtime resident to reject a plea offer when the plea will result in automatic deportation. This case is also important because it will resolve a circuit split that has been plaguing lower courts for years. It is an issue that continues to come up—in fact, the Sixth Circuit alone has faced the issue three times in the past five years.

It is unclear whether the justices will fall in line with their usual right-leaning or left-leaning affiliations, but it will be interesting to see exactly how they determine what is rational for immigrants facing deportation. The question of whether the Court will select a bright line rule or require these types of cases to be tried on a case-by-case basis depending on the magnitude of the evidence against the defendant remains.

March 29

Turner v. United States
No. 15-1503; D.C.

It was one of D.C.’s most infamous murder cases, and now, more than thirty years later, the formerly “solved” murder is becoming one of the biggest “whodunnits.” In 1984, Catherine Fuller, a 48-year-old mother, was found brutally beaten, raped, and murdered. Left with no physical evidence, police conducted 400 interviews and came to the conclusion that a large group of teens had murdered Ms. Fuller. As a result, they prosecuted eight young men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one who were found guilty, and all of whom except one—Christopher Turner—remain in prison to this day. Their widely publicized convictions became a catalyst for the police to call attention to, and target, “violent youth gangs.”

So why is a thirty-old murder case back in the news and in front of the Supreme Court? In 2012, several attorneys argued that, based on new evidence, these men might be innocent. Specifically, they alleged that the government withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense in violation of Brady v. Maryland. There are three categories of withheld evidence the attorneys identified: (1) multiple eyewitness accounts identifying two potential alternative perpetrators; (2) multiple eyewitness statements suggesting the murder was not committed by a group; and (3) evidence impeaching the key witness testimonies. Perhaps most crucially to the Court, James McMillan was one of the two potential alternative perpetrators. After the Fuller murder, McMillan committed and was convicted of several eerily similar crimes. The question for the Court is whether courts can consider this post-trial information in determining the materiality of the withheld evidence described above—namely the accounts identifying McMillan as the perpetrator.

The trial court and the D.C. Court of Appeals both rejected these claims. Now it is up to the Supreme Court to either uphold the convictions or send the case back to the trial court, at which time the prosecutors would need to decide whether to drop the charges—allowing the men to go free—or retry.

Of course, this case has the most important implications for the men convicted of this horrific crime. These men, most of whom have been sitting in prison for several decades, are looking to have their sentences vacated. For these men, their families, and all of those who believe them to be innocent, the Court’s decision means everything.

But this case is also very important to lower courts in clarifying Brady. In particular, can after-the-fact evidence be used to shed light on the importance of information withheld by prosecutors? How should the significance of the withheld evidence be weighed? The Court will hopefully shed some light on these issues.

Honeycutt v. United States
No. 16-142; 6th Cir.

The Justices may limit criminal asset forfeiture in drug conspiracies, in a case that asks the Court to find that co-conspirators are not jointly and severally liable for the proceeds of the conspiracy.

Terry Honeycutt worked at a hardware store in Chattanooga, Tennessee owned by his brother, Tony. The store carried an iodine-based water purifier called Polar Pure that was incidentally useful in manufacturing methamphetamine, and the brothers did a brisk business with Chattanooga-area meth cooks. After officers raided the store and seized their supply of Polar Pure, the Honeycutts were charged with conspiring to distribute and distributing substances with the knowledge they would be used to manufacture methamphetamine. The government sought a forfeiture of just under $270,000 in proceeds from the conspiracy.

Tony Honeycutt pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000. Terry Honeycutt proceeded to trial and was convicted on 11 counts. The government sought the remaining $70,000 in proceeds as a forfeiture from Terry Honeycutt. Because Terry Honeycutt was merely an employee of the hardware store and had not directly profited from the sales, the district court declined to order the forfeiture. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that it was bound by circuit precedent to find that under 21 U.S.C. § 853, co-conspirators in a drug conspiracy are jointly and severally liable.

Honeycutt asks the Court to resolve the circuit split against a finding of joint and several liability. He argues that the text of § 853 makes clear that forfeitures apply only to the property begotten from the conspiracy. Although he acknowledges that the enactment of the statute reflected a shift from in rem forfeitures—those targeting specific, tainted property—to in personam forfeitures—imposed as punishment on a guilty party—he argues that shift did not change the underlying principle that forfeiture targets only the property derived from the criminal activity. More broadly, Honeycutt argues that joint and several liability is a tort concept ill-suited to the criminal realm because it violates the rule of individualized punishment and does not compensate victims. Finally, Honeycutt raises a pair of constitutional claims, most notably an argument that joint and several liability is disproportionate to the offense and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The government, by contrast, argues that the shift from in rem to in personam forfeiture reflected in § 853 allows the government to hold co-conspirators jointly and severally liable for the reasonably foreseeable proceeds of their conspiracy. The government reasons by analogy from the Pinkerton Rule, which holds co-conspirators liable for all reasonably foreseeable substantive offenses that further a conspiracy. Additionally, the government notes that the “substitute asset” provision of § 853 allows the government to seize other property when the proceeds from the conspiracy “cannot be located upon the exercise of due diligence.”


This post was authored by The George Washington Law Review Online Editorial Team.

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