#criminal law cases
Top ten US Supreme Court cases on criminal law
This is my list of the ten most significant US Supreme Court cases relating to criminal law. I think I’ve cited every case on this list in a brief or motion within the last few months, and any competent criminal attorney would know most of these cases offhand.
In Mapp v. Ohio, 367 US 643 (1961). the Supreme Court held that evidence could not be admitted in a criminal trial if it was obtained through an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. As the court explained in Mapp and since, they want to discourage police misconduct by preventing the state from using a violation of a suspect s rights to obtain evidence. Mapp is particularly important because it was the first case to apply the exclusionary rule in a state prosecution, and the overwhelming majority of convictions are in state court rather than federal court.
In Gideon v. Wainwright. 372 US 335 (1963) the court held that a person charged with a crime is entitled to a court-appointed attorney. It is hard to imagine now how we could have a just legal system without that, or how much of a wrench it threw into the system when the court handed down that decision. Before Gideon, people could be convicted of the most serious crimes without a lawyer s assistance.
The Fourth Amendment provides protection from unreasonable searches in one’s person, house, papers, and effects. In Katz v. United States. 389 US 347 (1967). the court held that the Fourth Amendment applied, not just to the listed areas, but to places where a reasonable person would expect privacy. Accordingly, the court held that the Fourth Amendment forbids tapping a telephone booth without a warrant, and it prevents intercepting e-mail and text messages today.
My discussions with jurors during voir dire leads me to think that, after Roe v. Wade. the best-known Supreme Court case is Miranda v. Arizona. 384 US 436 (1966). As you may recall from high school civics or Law and Order, if the police arrest you, before they question you they have to advise you that you have the right to remain silent, that your silence cannot be used against you in court, and that you are entitled to counsel even if you can’t afford to hire an attorney yourself. If the police violate those rules, incriminating answers to their questions can’t be used against you.
In Brady v. Maryland, 373 US 83 (1963) the court held that the police and prosecution have to provide the defense with helpful evidence discovered during the investigation. This is narrower than most state rules on discovery, or the exchange of information to the parties to a lawsuit, but it also means that if the police have someone else confess to the crime, or if they find DNA evidence suggesting that someone else did it, they have to tell the defendant even if an individual state s law does not require it.
In Terry v. Ohio. 392 US 1 (1968). the Supreme Court held that, with a reasonable suspicion based on objective facts, but neither a warrant nor probable cause, the police could briefly detain a suspect to investigate and check for weapons. A brief detention is often called a “Terry stop,” or just a stop.
In United States v. Leon. 468 US 897 (1984). the Supreme Court held that when the police found evidence in good-faith reliance on an invalid search warrant, the evidence was nonetheless admissible. The court reasoned that the deterrence rationale of the exclusionary rule would not be served when the searching officers believed that the search was lawful. The dissent argued that the court was discouraging the police from understanding the Fourth Amendment.
In Strickland v. Washington. 466 US 668 (1984) the court held that the right to counsel means the right to competent counsel. If the attorney is incompetent, then a resulting conviction is invalid.
The only non-criminal case that made my top ten list, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.. 509 US 579 (1993) provides a test for the admission of scientific evidence. Evidence that is likely to be perceived as scientific, and therefore particularly persuasive, is not admissible unless the party offering the evidence establishes to the judge that the science is valid. Although Daubert is an application of a federal evidence rule, it is widely cited in state court decisions.
In Apprendi v. New Jersey. 530 US 466 (2000). the court held that any fact that increased a criminal defendant’s maximum lawful sentence had to be proved to the jury. Apprendi was a major change in sentencing law, and it replaced a morass of prior decisions about what facts had to be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and what could be proved to a judge by a preponderance of the evidence.
In Crawford v. Washington. 541 US 36 (2004). the court rejected an increasingly-complex list of exceptions, and held that the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses required that accusing witnesses testify in court and be subject to cross-examination.
That’s my top ten, or, if you were paying close attention, eleven. I tried initially to come up with a list of five, but I couldn’t do it; too much would be left out. There are cases that could be removed from my list, but only by replacing them with others. I thought about replacing Apprendi with Blakely v. Washington. or Daubert with Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael. This list includes no death-penalty or habeas corpus cases, and not much on sentencing, but that means I can write on those in the future.
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