Tag Archives: 8th Amendment

“Public Shaming” Leads to 8th Amendment Sex Registration Holding – Update for September 8, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


The registration systems for ex-inmates with sex offenses is state based. Congress decreed in the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) that every state would have a system, and then imposed a federal requirement on people convicted of sex offenses that they must register under penalty of law.

whip170911The public loves state registration laws, because they like to identify and shame ex-offenders for crime committed years before, running them out of housing, hounding them out of jobs, and even trying to break up their families. Sounds like punishment? The Supreme Court said not, in Smith v. Doe, which in 2004 held that Alaska’s Sex Offender Registration Act (“SORA”) was not punitive.

For a decade since it was handed down, Smith v. Doe shut down constitutional challenges to state SORAs. In the last few years, however, federal courts have been willing to recognize that the landscape has changed.

A little more than a week ago, a Colorado district court recognized what anyone who has faced the burdens, obstacles, and dangers of life on the offenders registry already knows: the punitive impact of the state’s SORA far outweighs any value it might have in protecting the public. The district judge held that Colorado’s registration statute violates the 8th Amendment by imposing cruel and unusual punishment, and violates a registrant’s 14th Amendment procedural and substantive due process rights.

The Colorado court held that Smith v. Doe’s “words ring hollow that the state’s website does not provide the public with means to shame the offender when considering the evidence in this case.” The Supreme Court “did not foresee the development of private, commercial websites exploiting the information made available to them and the opportunities for ‘investigative journalism’ or “the ubiquitous influence of social media.”

shaming170911The district court noted that Justice Kennedy, who wrote Smith v. Doe, said in last spring’s Packingham v. North Carolina decision that “the troubling fact that the law imposes severe restrictions on persons who already have served their sentence and are no longer subject to the supervision of the criminal justice system is… not an issue before the Court.” But it was in front of the Colorado district court, which said, “the evidence demonstrates that the very real restraints on Plaintiffs’ abilities to live, work, accompany their children to school, and otherwise freely live their lives are not simply a result of the crimes they committed, but of their placement on the registry and publication of their status…” Colorado’s SORA looks “far more like retribution for past offenses” than a public safety regulation, the Court said.

This decision joins similar court ruling in Alaska, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Given the significance of SORNA and the state schemes, Supreme Court review within the next few years is probable.

Millard v. Rankin, Case No. 1:13-cv-02046 (D.Colo., Aug. 31, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


Some Short Notes from D.C. – Update for August 7, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


The D.C. Circuit handed down a pair of rulings last Friday. One, the reversal of sentences (and in one case, a conviction) for four Blackwater contractors over a 2007 Baghdad massacre, was widely reported. The other, a case about prisoners’ waivers of FOIA rights, flew under the radar. Both are of significance to federal inmates.



carriefgun170807The big news from the D.C. Circuit last Friday was the reversal of sentences for four Blackwater private security contractors who massacred 14 civilians after they mistakenly thought they were under attack on a Baghdad street. Buried in that decision is a holding of interest to federal prisoners with 18 USC 924(c) convictions, especially where those counts are stacked to result in horrendous sentences.

The contractors were armed with government-issued M4 rifles, which of course can be set to fire fully automatically. Because of that, each of the defendants – found guilty of committing a crime of violence with a gun – got a mandatory sentence of 30 years because the weapon was a machine gun.

Apparently, hanging the 924(c) machinegun sentence on the defendants was contentious, even in the Justice Department. The D.C. Circuit agreed, ruling that applying the mandatory 30-year sentence to the contractors – based “solely on the type of weapons… used – violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In its opinion, the Circuit tried mightily to limit the decision to the facts of the case: It notes the firearms were a type required by the government, the contractors all had prior unblemished military records and no other convictions, it was a war zone where snap judgment was the difference between life and death, the contractors did not choose to be on that street corner, but were ordered there by their commander, and they did not set out that day to blow away civilians. The Court also noted that when 924(c) was last amended, the concept of private contractors protecting U.S. diplomats was not envisioned.

overkill170807“Combining all of these considerations,” the appellate court said, “we conclude the mandatory 30-year sentences create the rare case that leads to an inference of gross disproportionality… None of the penological justifications our society relies upon when sentencing criminals — incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, or deterrence — are properly served here by a sentence whose length is determined solely based on the type of weapon used during the crime.”

The Blackwater case has a rare set of facts, and run-of-the-mill defendants – who, for example, use a submachine gun to rob a bank – are unlikely to get much love from the holding. However, now the 8th Amendment camel’s nose is inside the tent. It will be interesting to see whether 8th Amendment claims become a staple of 924(c) defense elsewhere in the country.

United States v. Slatten, Case No. 15-3078 (D.C.Cir., Aug. 4, 2017)



The government often demands, as a price for plea agreements, that defendants waive their right to pursue Freedom of Information Act requests.

Last Friday, the D.C. Circuit outlawed the practice, holding that the FOIA waiver is unconnected to any “legitimate criminal justice interest” and is void as a matter of public policy.

foia160930The Court said a “prosecutor is permitted to consider only legitimate criminal justice concerns in striking a plea bargain—concerns such as rehabilitation, allocation of criminal justice resources, the strength of the evidence against the defendant, and the extent of a defendant’s cooperation with the authorities… This set of legitimate interests places boundaries on the rights that can be bargained away in plea negotiations.”

While banning FOIA suits “may occasionally promote the government’s legitimate interest in finality,” the Circuit said, “they only do so by making it more difficult for criminal defendants to uncover exculpatory information or material showing that their counsel provided ineffective assistance. That argument takes the finality interest too far. After all, a defendant can never waive his right to bring a colorable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, even though such claims undermine finality… FOIA plays a significant role in uncovering undisclosed Brady material and evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, and in practice has led to uncovering records relevant to ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims, such as plea offers not communicated by defense counsel to clients.”

Price v. Dept. of Justice Attorney Office, Case No. 15-5312 (D.C.Cir., Aug. 4, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


A Trio of Significant Decisions – Update for February 27, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


Antwon Jenkins was convicted of kidnapping and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. He appealed, claiming the government had violated the plea agreement. He got 188 months for the kidnapping and another 120 months for the 18 USC 924(c) charge.

kidnap170227Before the appeal was decided, Johnson v. United States was decided by the Supreme Court, holding the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. Antwon amended his appeal to claim that the 924(c) conviction was void, because kidnapping could only be a crime of violence under the residual clause, making the conviction unconstitutional under Johnson.

Last Friday, the 7th Circuit agreed. It found that the first element of kidnapping – unlawfully seizing, confining, inveigling, decoying, kidnapping, abducting, or carrying away — does not necessarily require the use of force. The government argued that because the second element, holding for ransom or reward or otherwise, must be unlawful, it necessarily requires at a minimum the threat of physical force, but the Circuit disagreed. “Holding can be accomplished without physical force. For example, a perpetrator could lure his victim into a room and lock the victim inside against his or her will. This would satisfy the holding element of kidnapping under 18 USC § 1201(a) without using, threatening to use, or attempting to use physical force.”

The decision brings the 7th Circuit into harmony with other circuits that have held that similar crimes of false imprisonment and kidnapping by deception do not have physical force as an element.”

Antwon had not raised the issue in the trial court, but the 7th found that despite this, he had met the stringent FRCrimP 52(b) “plain error” standard for bringing it up for the first time on appeal. The Court said, “A 120‐month prison sentence for a nonexistent crime undermines the fairness of the judicial proceedings and cannot stand.”

United States v. Jenkins, Case No. 14-2898 (7th Cir., Feb. 24, 2017)


For state prisoners who have exhausted their habeas corpus claims, 28 USC § 2254 permits filing the claims in federal court. Such cases are not easy to win, because federal courts will go with the state court’s decision unless it’s absolutely unreasonable. Even filing the cases on time is tough.

Mostly, 2254 does not affect federal prisoners, but a decision last Friday by the 11th Circuit delivers a stark message that federal inmate litigants should take to heart: if your lawyer drops your case without telling you, that’s one thing. But if he or she is just stupid – even really, really stupid – you’re bound by counsel’s mistakes.

Ernest Cadet, a Florida prisoner, was denied habeas corpus relief in state court. Under the convoluted rules that apply to 2254 motions, his one-year clock then started running for filing in federal court. It stopped with only 5 days left when he filed for review with the Florida Supreme Court.

But even an average lawyer should know how to count...
But even an average lawyer should know how to count…

While his Supreme Court petition was pending, Ernie hired Attorney Goodman, a guy who may have been a “good man” but was a lousy attorney. When the Supreme Court turned Ernie’s motion down, the inmate told Goodman they didn’t have much time to file a 2254. He said inmates in the law library warned him that he had to act fast. Goodwin replied he had read the statute, and Ernie had a full year, asking “who are you going to believe, the real lawyer or the jailhouse lawyer?”

The correct answer was “the jailhouse lawyer.” Goodwin filed the motion within the time he thought Ernie had, but it really about a year late. The federal district court threw out the petition as untimely. Ernie appealed.

The 11th Circuit upheld the dismissal. Inmates love to talk about “equitable tolling” as an end run around statutory deadlines, but the plain fact, the Circuit said, is that equitable tolling is an extraordinary remedy “limited to rare and exceptional circumstances and typically applied sparingly.” To warrant equitable tolling, a prisoner has to show he has been pursuing his rights diligently but that some extraordinary circumstance prevented timely filing.

lawyermistake170227The Court said attorney miscalculation of a filing deadline “is simply not sufficient to warrant equitable tolling, particularly in the post-conviction context where prisoners have no constitutional right to counsel.” The relevant distinction should be between attorney negligence – which is “constructively attributable to the client” – and “attorney misconduct that is not constructively attributable” to the client because counsel has abandoned the prisoner. A lawyer’s “near-total failure to communicate with petitioner or to respond to petitioner’s many inquiries and requests over a period of several years” might be abandonment. “Common sense,” Justice Alito concluded in a prior Supreme Court case, “dictates that a litigant cannot be held constructively responsible for the conduct of an attorney who is not operating as his agent in any meaningful sense of that word.”

The problem in this case is that Goodman never abandoned Ernie. He kept communicating, but arrogantly dismissed the possibility Ernie and his jailhouse lawyer friends might be right without doing as much as five minutes’ worth of research to see whether they might be.

Ernie “acted with reasonable diligence,” the Court said, “but the reasonable diligence and extraordinary circumstance requirements are not blended factors; they are separate elements, both of which must be met before there can be any equitable tolling.” Just because an agent (the lawyer) is grossly negligent does not mean he had abandoned his principal (the client).

Goodman was stupid, but he did not disappear on Ernie. The 11th held that “because the attorney is the prisoner’s agent, and under well-settled principles of agency law, the principal bears the risk of negligent conduct on the part of his agent… as a result, when a petitioner’s post-conviction attorney misses a filing deadline, the petitioner is bound by the oversight.

Cadet v. State of Florida DOC, Case No. 12-14518 (11th Cir., Feb. 24, 2017)


In a remarkable decision handed down by the 4th Circuit last Thursday, a deaf inmate’s claim that the BOP violated his 8th Amendment and 1st Amendment rights by denying him a sign-language interpreter and videophone link.

hearme170227The inmate complained that he was denied an interpreter to assist at medical appointments, and to enable him to take a class required because of the nature of his offense. He also said communications with the outside was limited to an antiquated TTY phone device, which he could only use when a BOP staff person trained in TTY was available to supervise. Often, he said, he was denied TTY access because of staff shortages or just because of arbitrary reasons, and he could never use the TTY on nights or weekends.

The Circuit reversed a district court decision that threw out all of the claims, saying the inmate did not have to show he had been harmed by the 8th Amendment deliberate indifference, just that there was a substantial risk of harm. As for the 1st Amendment claim, the Court swept away BOP claims of the security risks of a videophone, holding that the Bureau could easily monitor videophone calls just as it did TTY calls.

The BOP tried to derail the case by promising to provide interpreters in the future, stating that inmates would be provided “with a qualified interpreter… if necessary for effective communication during religious ceremonies or programs.” That was good enough for the district court, but the 4th swept the promises aside: “It is well established that a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice moots an action only if subsequent events made it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur,” the Court said. “Even if we ignore the equivocation inherent in the promise to provide interpreters ‘if necessary’ the statement amounts to little more than a ‘bald assertion’ of future compliance, which is insufficient to meet BOP’s burden.”

Heyer v. Bureau of Prisons, Case No. 15-6826 (4th Cir., Feb. 23, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root