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Supreme Court to Hear "Dog Sniff" Cases

October 30, 2012

k-9.jpgThe Supreme Court of the United States is now in session. Two cases are to be heard on Wednesday, October 31. They are both from Florida and both involve the use of police dogs in the gathering of evidence in regards to illegal narcotics. The court will decide if such use violates the Fourth Amendment. That amendment states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Currently, the Bexar County Sheriff's Office maintains a Canine Unit consisting of five handler officers and seven dogs. Some of the dogs are patrol dogs, some are bomb detection dogs, and some are narcotics detection dogs. Canines trained for the narcotics division are used to detect the scent of marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine. According to the Sherriff's Office, the dogs can locate drugs in houses, cars, and even buried underground.

In the case of Florida v Jardines, (Oral Argument Transcripts) the defendant maintains that a warrantless "sniff test" by a dog at his home with live plants inside violated his right against unreasonable searches. Was a trained narcotics canine sniffing at a front door to a private residence a search under the Fourth Amendment and therefore a violation of privacy? The defense argues that the "sniff test" should have been conducted after there was evidence of a crime.

In the case of Florida v Harris, (Oral Argument Transcripts) a valid traffic stop for driving with an expired registration tag resulted in a warrantless search of the defendant's truck. The police officer had his dog, Aldo, sniff the outside of the truck. Aldo "alerted" at the door handle and the officer searched the vehicle's interior. The officer admitted at the trial that the dog can pick up lingering "residual odors". Does an "alert" from an odor that could have been lingering for an unknown amount of time result in probable cause for a subsequent search?


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Did Texas Violate the Eighth Amendment When it Exectuted Marvin Wilson?

August 13, 2012

texas-flag.jpgTexas' execution of Marvin Wilson raises the issue of whether this state violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In the United States of America it is illegal and immoral to execute a child. But, the line between right and wrong blurs when the execution of a man with the intelligence of a child is in question. The execution of Marvin Wilson, whose mental capabilities was that of a seven-year-old, is a gross miscarriage of justice. The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution states that "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Texas has effectively slapped the Eighth Amendment in the face.

Marvin Wilson, 54, was executed in Huntsville, TX, on Tuesday, August 7, 2012. Wilson was convicted in 1992 for the shooting of 21-year-old Jerry Robert Williams in Beaumont, TX. Wilson was sentenced to death for the murder of Williams, even though the prosecution had no forensic evidence and failed to find any eyewitnesses to the actual shooting. Wilson was tried in the District Court of Jefferson County and entered death row on May 9, 1992. Wilson filed on March 3, 2006, with the US Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit.

Williams was a police informant when he was killed on November 10, 1992. Wilson had been arrested for drug possession and out on bond when Williams was murdered. Andrew Lewis was Wilson's accomplice, and witnesses claimed they saw Wilson and Lewis drive away from a gas station with Williams in the car. Williams was later found with gun shots in his head.

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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Illegal Strip Searches -- Ruling Could Limit When San Antonio Officers May Search Detainees

November 16, 2011

Thumbnail image for supreme court.jpgOn October 12, 2011, the United Supreme Court continued its new term and heard oral arguments on a case that is a Fourth Amendment issue. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which applies to the citizens of San Antonio, states that: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." While the oral arguments are over, the opinion from the court is to be determined.

Albert W. Florence, Petitioner v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, et al. raises the question of whether or not a jail or prison has the right to conduct a strip search on every person who is taken into custody, no matter what the charge(s) may be. This is a Fourth Amendment issue dealing with suspicion-less strip searches - should there be a flat rule or should it be determined on a case by case basis? This particular case began in 2005 when Florence was in the car with his pregnant wife and 4-year-old daughter on their way to dinner at his mother-in-law's house. His wife was driving and was pulled over for a routine traffic stop. Because the car was registered in Mr. Florence's name, the officer asked to see his identification in addition to his wife's. When the information was checked, the officer saw that there was a warrant for Florence because of an unpaid fine. Florence carried a copy of the court record to show that he actually paid the fine, but the officer took him into custody anyway. Florence was in custody in both Burlington and Essex Counties for a total of six days before he saw a judge, at which time he was immediately released. While he was in custody, Florence was subjected to two strip searches. Florence filed a lawsuit because he asserted that the searches were unreasonable because he was being held for failure to pay a fine, which is not a criminal offense in New Jersey (and let's not forget that he had already paid the fine).

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U.S. Supreme Court: Criminal Cases to be Decided Will Effect Texas Criminal Justice

November 1, 2011

On October 4, 2011, the United Supreme Court began its new term and heard oral arguments on seven cases. Because the Supreme Court's opinions are considered the Supreme law of the land, its decisions will impact San Antonio and the entire Texas criminal justice system. Three of the cases deal directly with defendants serving time in state prisons - two cases concern inadequate representation and the third concerns Miranda rights. They are all seeking release on the grounds that they are being held in violation of their federally protected constitutional rights. While the oral arguments are over, the opinion from the court is to be determined.

Maples v. Thomas raises the question of whether or not a defendant can argue that a death sentence is unconstitutional because the lawyer messed up and did not file paperwork on time. The Eleventh Circuit court ruled that there was no reason to excuse the case. Maples confessed to the murders he is now serving time for, but he argues that his lawyers were so ineffective that he missed a deadline to appeal the ruling. Two lawyers had taken on Maples' post-conviction proceedings Pro Bono. At some point after taking on the case, they both got new jobs at different law firms. They failed to contact the court, and important paperwork that was mailed to their old law firm was returned, unopened. The court then failed to try to make any further contact with the lawyers or with Maples. Thus he missed necessary deadlines, and by the time he found out about the mistake it was too late for him to correct it. In other words, his right to appeal was violated because lawyers quit the case without informing the court and the Eleventh Circuit court upheld that Maples had defaulted on his claims when he missed deadlines.

Howes v. Fields asks whether Miranda warnings must be read to a prisoner when being questioned because a prisoner is considered already in custody. Randall Fields is serving time on one crime when he was taken from his cell to another part of a prison and questioned by police officers about an unrelated crime. He was never read his rights and he argues that information obtained in that questioning session should not have been used against him in the trial that followed. If police officers do not to read a Miranda warning to a person, they can still question that person but cannot use that person's statements against them in a criminal trial. So, the question is: If a person must be read their rights if they are in custody, is a prisoner automatically in custody and therefore entitled to the Miranda warning according to the Fifth Amendment?


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Watch Out San Antonio, Big Brother Could Be Keeping an Eye on You

October 24, 2011

big brother.jpg The United States Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday, November 8, 2011, for the case of U.S. vs. Jones. In 2005, police in Maryland attached a GPS device to Antoine Jones' car. They tracked his every move 24-hours a day, seven days a week, for four weeks. All of this was done without a warrant and without his consent. Based on information gained from this warrantless GPS tracking, Jones was sentenced to life in prison on drug charges. The D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and ruled that the constant GPS tracking violated Jones' Fourth Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court must now answer the questions: (1) Whether the warrantless use of a tracking device on petitioner's vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violated the Fourth Amendment; and (2) whether the government violated respondent's Fourth Amendment rights by installing the GPS tracking device on his vehicle without a valid warrant and without his consent.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. The Founding Fathers could not, obviously, anticipate such technology as GPS devices and cell phones, but the amendments must evolve and adapt to maintain the Constitutional integrity and original intent of the document. And San Antonio residents, as citizens of the United States, justifiably expect the three branches of government to maintain a political system where it adheres to limits in power and endeavors to uphold reason, common sense, and individuality.

Are the measures the government employs to catch the bad guys restricting the basic freedoms that San Antonians take for granted? When the government and its acting bodies are allowed to regulate unchecked, we run the risk of living in a world that weakens our pride, damages our liberty, and distorts our equality. Are we willing, as citizens of Bexar County, to sacrifice our freedoms in the face of so-called security? People are expected to turn a blind eye to the repression of civil liberties and Constitutional guarantees for the supposed greater good. Are Texans implying consent to have our movements tracked and monitored simply by driving our cars on public roads? American citizens live under an expectation of privacy and those who possess positions of governmental power do so because of our consent.

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