Articles Posted in Federal Law

In April of 2010, Mr. Cornell had his home raided by police where 1/16th of an ounce of marijuana had been found – not enough to roll a joint. None of the potential jurors called for the case where willing to consider convicting someone for possessing a very small amount of marijuana.[1]

November 16th 2010, Touray Cornell from Montana, breathed a sigh of relief and smiled as Judge “Dusty” Deschamps convened his court to report that out of all the potential jurors who had been called, not one would be willing to convict Mr. Cornell. Dumbfounded by the jurors’ decision, the District Attorney quickly spoke to Mr. Cornell’s defense counsel and an immediate plea deal was made. Mr. Cornell walked out free without admitting guilt and without probation.

Mr. Cornell witnessed the power of Jury Nullification, a show of citizen’s power through the legal system have a long and storied history in America. it is the power of Jury nullification and Mr. Cornell saw a version of that power first hand.

Today marks the 3rd anniversary of the landmark decision in Riley v California in which the Supreme Court unanimously held that a warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of cell phones during an arrest is unconstitutional.

The Cases

The cases that eventually became the basis of the decision in Riley v. California[1] are interesting to say the least, and highlight why a Supreme Court decision on the matter was vital in settling the question of the constitutionality of these warrantless searches.

In the history of Supreme Court jurisprudence, there is perhaps no greater rights that has been drilled into the minds of the public than those of the “Miranda Warning”. From movies to television shows, Law and Order to CSI, no phrase is more ubiquitous in cop dramas than the warnings enshrined in Miranda. However, these warnings, in their ubiquity are not fully understood by the American public. Such ignorance; the very reason why the Supreme Court enshrined these rights[1], has proven the warnings ineffective at actually informing suspects of what their rights actually mean.

What is a Miranda Warning

The Miranda warning developed from the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona[2]. In this landmark decision the Supreme Court consolidated four cases of individuals who, during police interrogations, where not specifically informed of either their fifth amendment right to remain silent[3], their sixth amendment right to counsel[4], or both of these rights. All four cases also involved suspects who sat through between two and fourteen hours of police interrogations before they confessed.

Terry v. Ohio[1]’s “narrow” ruling on the constitutionality of police stop and pat downs absent probable cause has opened up a whole new world of Supreme Court jurisprudence. The Court has sketched out the scope of these searches, seizures, and what remedies apply to constitutional violations resulting from them.

Simple Scope Expansions for Vehicles

The Supreme Court quickly extended the principles of Terry from beat cops seeing suspicious behavior on the street, to police officers who see suspicious behavior on the road and in vehicles. Beginning with Pennsylvania v. Mimms[2], the Court allowed for officers to ask people to exit their vehicle and conduct a “Terry Frisk” when the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous.

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the decision in Gonzales v. Raich, a decision whose repercussions still resonate across the legal marijuana market. Following precedent, the Supreme Court held that the Commerce Clause[1] of the Constitution allowed for the federal government to criminalize the private cultivation of marijuana, even if that cultivation was in compliance with state law.

The Case

The facts of the case demonstrate federalism at work. In 1996, California ratified proposition 215 otherwise known as “The Compassionate Use act of 1996”. This act legalized the use, sale and cultivation of medical marijuana with a recommendation from a doctor. California had become the third state to legalize medical marijuana, and the first to legalize it via referendum.

The phrase “Stop and Frisk” has become a common feature of today’s political debate. The practice is often brought up in discussions of police tactics, court cases, and criminal justice. However, the average person has little awareness of the jurisprudence surrounding the practice. Unfortunately, people must be aware of what the practice actually is to properly safe guard their constitutional rights against abusive and unconstitutional police action.

What is “Stop and Frisk”?

The phrase “Stop and Frisk” is a shortened way of describing two distinct government actions of a Terry stop, and a Terry frisk both of which arose out of the 1968 case of Terry v Ohio[1]. Terry v Ohio has proven to be one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in terms of the practical impact on the fourth amendment[2].  Terry outlined a new way of interpreting the meaning of the fourth amendment’s reasonableness and probable cause requirements in the context of a search and seizure.

iStock_000006154486XSmall.jpgA House of Representatives task force in Washington D.C. is rethinking the harsh federal prison terms imposed on non-violent drug offenses. The task force, created in early May 2013 by the House Judiciary Committee, will investigate where the federal criminal code over-criminalizes minor offenses. Advocates, lawmakers and citizens hope that the task force will lead to an eventual reduction in the massive federal prison population.

The group faces a formidable task: review the entirety of the estimated 4,500 federal crimes contained in the U.S. code. Many House progressives, such as Representatives Cohen (Democrat, Tennessee) and Jeffries (Democrat, New York), are hoping that the review will serve as an opportunity to narrow in on outdated federal drug laws. “It’s my understanding that every issue is on the table, and this will be a really robust, bipartisan effort to take a look at the federal criminal code,” Jeffries said.

Two years ago, Senator Jim Webb (Democrat, Virginia) introduced a similar federal commission to investigate reasons why the federal prison population is so massive. However, a Republican filibuster blocked then bill, in part over conservatives’ concerns that it would lead to the legalization of marijuana. Pleased that the measure is back on the table, Jennifer Bellamy, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization will push for changes that would greatly reduce the federal prison population. “I think the fiscal crisis has really created an opportunity for some bipartisan alliances on the issue. I think a lot of folks are concerned about the cost” of mass incarceration, stated Bellamy.

iStock_000004478097XSmall (3).jpgAmid a growing movement to legalize marijuana for personal use, two bills were recently proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would give states the option to legalize medical or recreational marijuana use, but would require each state to levy federal taxes on all marijuana sales.

The twin bills work in conjunction with each other and were introduced by Representatives Jared Polis of Colorado and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, both Democrats. One bill proposes to allow states to exercise jurisdiction over marijuana and regulate it in a way similar to alcohol, effectively ending the federal ban on pot. The second bill would levy a federal tax over state marijuana sales, providing a lucrative tax resource in a time of increasingly tight government budgets. A similar bipartisan effort in the House of Representatives failed in 2011, but with an increasing number of states decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana it is inevitable that this bill, or one like it, will eventually pass on the federal level.

Meanwhile in Colorado and Washington, where citizens voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, state legislators, growers, providers, law enforcement agents and both medical and recreational marijuana users are wondering how to navigate the conflicting state and federal marijuana laws. The U.S. Justice Department has yet to clarify its stance on the issue, but President Barack Obama has said it does not make sense for the federal government to focus on recreational drug possession in states that have modernized their marijuana laws, given increasingly limited government resources and growing public acceptance of marijuana use.