Court Decisions

A discussion of critical judicial opinions from courts across the country.

Cooperate, Or Else!

This week the Supreme Court ruled that a person can lose his liberty for declining to respond to a police officer's questions. Nevada rancher Dudley Hiibel was jailed for refusing to identify himself to a patrolman. On first blush, this legal precedent may seem to be a rather petty matter, but it is a travesty.

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ACLU Asks Florida Court To Protect The Rights Of Pregnant Women To Refuse Medical Care

In March 2009, the Circuit Court of Leon County ordered Samantha Burton -- a mother of two suffering from pregnancy complications -- to be indefinitely confined to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and forced to undergo any and all medical treatments deemed necessary to save her fetus. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida today filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the state's decision to force a pregnant woman to remain hospitalized against her will.

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Supreme Court Says School Violated 4th Amendment In Strip Search

Today, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Safford Unified School District #1, et. al. v. Redding that school officials violated the 4th Amendment when they strip-searched a 13-year-old girl. Despite upholding the 4th Amendment in this case, however, the Court left the door wide open for future violations of student rights.

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If Frank Ricci Loses Reverse Discrimination, Blame Scalia

A lot of people have suggested that Ricci has been treated unusually and unfairly in the courts. In fact, he's been treated just like any other plaintiff suing for employment discrimination. The anger and frustration of the top-scoring firefighters who expected promotions is understandable. But the outrage on the right is also ironic, because the reason that people who sue for employment discrimination -- like Frank Ricci -- rarely win their cases is that conservative judges have spent decades making sure they usually lose.

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White Firefighters Win Reverse Discrimination Supreme Court Appeal

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., were unfairly denied promotions because of their race, reversing a decision that high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor endorsed as an appeals court judge. The ruling could alter employment practices nationwide and make it harder to prove discrimination when there is no evidence it was intentional.

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Supreme Court Upholds 4th Amendment In Arizona v. Gant

For many years, the Supreme Court has permitted police to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle any time an occupant of the car is arrested. Well, that's finally going to change. The Supreme Court ruled today in Arizona v. Gant that vehicle searches following an arrest are legal only if...

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Court Fails To Decide On Anti-Hillary Movie

The Supreme Court has failed to decide on whether a scathing documentary about Hillary Rodham Clinton that was shown during the presidential race should be regulated as if it were a campaign ad. Citizens United, a conservative not-for-profit group, wants to air ads for the movie in Democratic primary states and make the film available to cable subscribers on demand without complying with federal campaign finance law, but lower courts have said the movie looked and sounded like a long campaign ad, and so should be regulated like one.

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Airport Security Likes Asking Questions, But Refuses To Answer Them

The TSA got more than they bargained for when they detained Steve Bierfeldt, a staffer at Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty. They wanted to know why he was carrying $4,700 and he wanted to know whether he was legally obligated to tell them. Fortunately, he was able to record the incident on his phone. This FOX News clip has the audio:

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Courtroom Judge Has Power To Ban Muslim Veil

A divided Michigan Supreme Court has approved a much-awaited rule of evidence revision that delineates the power of a courtroom judge to determine witness attire, rejecting an argument that the revised rule should contain an exception for religious dress.

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Unlawful Detentions

Yesterday, five high-profile detainees attempted to submit guilty pleas before the government's ill-conceived military commissions. But, by the end of the day, their pleas were tied up in a blizzard of confusion over unresolved legal questions. No matter how hard the government tries to advance the military commissions, this process doesn't work. Guilty pleas in these proceedings are the result of an inhumane, unjust processes designed to achieve foregone conclusions.

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Court Rules Judges Must Avoid Appearance Of Bias

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that elected judges must step aside in cases involving large campaign contributions from interested parties to avoid the appearance of bias, a decision that could have implications in 39 states where voters choose judges. "Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when -- without the consent of the other parties -- a man chooses the judge in his own cause," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

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Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: A Perversion Of Justice

In 1991, Hamedeh Hasan, then a 24 year old living with her cousins who were low-level drug sellers, got caught up in the margins of their scene, as a crack cocaine user (totally uninvolved with the dealing end). She became an early target of the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing policies being pushed by the Reagan-Bush sponsored federal war on drugs, and received a double life sentence in prison, where she remains today.

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Bush Rule Bolstering Deportations Is Withdrawn

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday reversed a Bush administration ruling that had weakened the ability of immigrants facing deportation to argue that their lawyers did a bad job. The original order, issued by President Bush just days before he left office, held that immigrants did not have a constitutional right to effective lawyers.

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Court Rules Unanimously On Execution Of Mentally Retarded

Elaborating on its 2002 decision banning the execution of the mentally retarded, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that prosecutors in Ohio should have a new opportunity to prove that a death row inmate there was not retarded and thus was eligible to be executed.

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Impossible For Tasers To Kill, A Judge Says

A judge has ordered a medical examiner to change her autopsy findings to delete any reference that stun guns contributed to the deaths of three people involved in confrontations with law enforcement officers. This is creepy, and all the people on record who have died from being tased respectfully disagree.

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Supreme Court Strikes A Blow To The Fourth Amendment

Today's Supreme Court ruling in Virginia v. Moore upheld the use of evidence seized during arrests that are illegal under state law. It's a terrible ruling to be sure, but it's hardly the deathblow to our 4th Amendment rights that some may assume. As always, we hope concerned citizens will take a moment to learn what the ruling does and does not do and remember that asserting your constitutional rights during police encounters remains the best choice.

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Covservatives Map Strategies For High Court's Future

Preparing to oppose the confirmation of President Obama's eventual choice to succeed Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring, conservative groups are working together to stockpile ammunition. Ten memorandums summarizing their research, obtained by The New York Times, provide a window onto how they hope to frame the coming debate. While conservatives say they know they have little chance of defeating President Obama's choice because Democrats control the Senate, they say they hope to mount a fight that could help refill depleted coffers and galvanize a movement demoralized by Republican electoral defeats.

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Supreme Court Heads To Busy Finish As Souter's Retirement Looms

Justice David Souter's final few weeks of work will be busy ones for the Supreme Court, which has yet to resolve disputes over a major part of the Voting Rights Act, federal campaign finance law and job discrimination claims by white firefighters. Before they begin their lengthy summer break, the justices also must decide cases concerning judicial ethics, the rights of convicts to test genetic evidence, and a strip search of a student who was thought to be hiding Advil.

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The Fourth Amendment Lives! (...In Alaska)

The Alaska Court of Appeals on Friday put law enforcement agencies on notice that it would not tolerate "implicitly coercive" search requests during traffic stops. The warning came in the form of a ruling on the case of Susan S. Brown, a driver pulled over on November 24, 2004 allegedly because the light illuminating her car's rear license plate was dirty.

Read more: The Fourth Amendment Lives! (...In Alaska)

Landmark ACLU Rendition Case To Go Forward

On Wednesday, the ACLU Human Rights Program and National Security Project won a crucial ruling in our Jeppesen DataPlan "extraordinary rendition" lawsuit, allowing the suit to move forward. This exciting win means that for the first time a U.S. court has held that men who were kidnapped, sent to secret prisons overseas, and tortured at the hands of (or at the behest of) the U.S. government will finally have their day in court.

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Privacy Law's Dark Side: The Michael Hyde Story

Police in Abington, MA stopped Michael Hyde for an alleged traffic violation. Upon being pulled over, Hyde used a hand-held audio tape recorder to capture his entire exchange with the officers, without their knowledge. Hyde, a musician, felt he was being harassed by the police officers and that they targeted him because of his long hair and flashy sports car, and he was right. They detained him well in excess of the time it would have taken to give him a citation, asking him if he had cocaine in his car, searching through a shopping bag in his back seat (filled only with CDs), threatening to take him to jail, and using foul language toward him. After their searches failed to turn up any drugs, they let him go, but Hyde knew his rights had been violated. He filed a complaint against the officers, and produced the audio tape as evidence of what transpired during his encounter with them. Rather than reprimand the officers, the police instead chose to bury the harassment complaint and have Hyde charged with a criminal violation of the state's electronic surveillance laws!

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Judge Rules Pole Dancing Is Art Qualifying For Sales Tax Exemption

After reviewing DVDs of exotic dancers, an administrative law judge has determined that pole dancing is "no small feat" -- and it's also art qualifying for a significant tax exemption. The judge, Catherine Bennett, ruled the Albany-area club Nite Moves was entitled to a "dramatic arts" tax exemption and did not have to pay $129,000 in sales taxes being sought by the State of New York.

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FDA Overstepped Bounds In Restricting 'Plan B' Contraceptive

A federal regulatory agency overstepped its bounds in limiting access to the so-called "Plan B" emergency contraceptive, a federal judge has ruled. In setting special requirements for the controversial contraceptive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration departed in significant ways from the agency's normal procedures regarding similar applications to switch a drug from prescription to non-prescription use.

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First Amendment Lawsuit Gets Green Light From 11th Circuit

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the ACLU of Florida today, finding that a 2006 lawsuit filed on behalf of Amnesty International "properly states a valid claim alleging a violation of its First Amendment rights." The federal lawsuit alleges that Miami police officers prevented Amnesty members from exercising their constitutional right to assemble and protest, despite having obtained a permit from the City of Miami Police Department.

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Justices One Step Closer To Repeal Of Evidence Ruling

In 1983, a young lawyer in the Reagan White House was hard at work on what he called in a memorandum "the campaign to amend or abolish the exclusionary rule" -- the principle that evidence obtained by police misconduct cannot be used against a defendant. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority in Herring v. United States, a 5-to-4 decision, took a big step toward the goal Reagan had discussed a quarter-century before.

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Supreme Court Agrees To Decide Issue That Caused Kennedy Recusal

The Supreme Court today agreed to take up six new cases later this term, including one from Oregon that raises an issue that had previously deadlocked the Court because of the recusal of Justice Anthony Kennedy. The same issue has divided lower courts for years: whether students with disabilities must first try a public school's special education program before they can obtain reimbursement for private school tuition under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

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Justices Say Evidence Is Valid Despite Police Error

In a 5-to-4 opinion, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of an Alabama man on drug and weapons charges, emphasizing that the exclusionary rule, which generally bars prosecutors from using evidence obtained by the police through improper searches, is far from absolute. In this ruling, the court's majority came to a conclusion that will most likely please those who complain about criminals going free on "technicalities" and alarm those who fear that the high court is looking for ways to narrow the reach of the exclusionary rule.

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Court Rules Patriot Act's "National Security Letter" Gag Provisions Unconstitutional

Last month, a federal appeals court upheld, in part, a decision striking down the gag provisions of the Patriot Act which prevent National Security Letter (NSL) recipients from speaking out about secret demands for records. The decision comes in an ACLU lawsuit, Doe v. Mukasey, challenging the FBI's authority to use NSLs to demand sensitive and private customer records from Internet Service Providers and then forbid them from discussing the requests.

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Adoption Ban Illegal

A Miami-Dade circuit judge Tuesday declared Florida's 30-year-old ban on gay adoption unconstitutional, allowing a North Miami man to adopt two foster kids he has raised since 2004. In a 53-page order that sets the stage for what could become a constitutional showdown, Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman permitted 47-year-old Frank Gill to adopt the 4- and 8-year-old boys he and his partner have raised for almost four years.

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Proposed Amendments 7 & 9 Struck From The Ballot

We did it! Proposed Constitutional Amendments 7 & 9 were removed from the November ballot today, thanks in large part to the support we received from you. But don't rest just yet, as this will not be the end of the battle to protect separation of church & state and prevent the return of vouchers in Florida.

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Court Tosses 'Wardrobe Malfunction' FCC Fine

A Philadelphia appeals court Monday threw out the $550,000 indecency fine levied on CBS in connection with Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl.

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Words Banned At Trial

Earlier this month, the National Law Journal ran a story noting that a steadily increasing number of courts around the country are instituting bans on witnesses' use of loaded terms in criminal cases. Such forbidden words include "rape," "victim," "crime scene," "homicide," and "drunk." The trend appears to be a reaction to revelations about wrongful convictions of innocent people. Though understandable in some respects, this reaction is unreasonable and likely to frustrate, rather than enhance, the truth-seeking process.

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Fired U.S. Attorneys Case Hits Judicial Roadblock

A cautious judge may be good news for Bush officials in ongoing subpoena struggle. For months, the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Bush administration have been locked in a potentially historic battle over whether top White House aides will ever testify about the controversial firings of federal prosecutors in late 2006.

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Self-Representation Is Not An Absolute Right

Lawyers are good for something, it appears . . . The Supreme Court on Thursday said that defendants found mentally competent to stand trial are not necessarily also competent to represent themselves at the trial. As a result, the Court ruled by a 7-2 vote that states may insist that mentally ill defendants be represented by counsel when "they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves."

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What The Boumediene v. Bush Ruling Means

Last week's landmark Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush was a nail in Guantanamo's coffin. For the third time in four years, the Supreme Court sent a strong message that it disagrees with the Bush Administration's detainee policies.

The Court's 70-page opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, holds that prisoners in U.S. custody at Guantanamo have the right to challenge their detention via a fair process in federal court. Specifically, the decision says that the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which stripped the detainees of their right of access to the courts, represents an unconstitutional suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. The ruling overturned a lower court decision that found that the 2006 law was constitutional.

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Boumediene v. Bush: A Constitutional Paradox

Not surprisingly, last week's landmark 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush has already been decried by conservatives and hailed by liberals. Curiously, however, critics and admirers of the decision both appear to claim support from the same venerable principle: the balance of powers under the U.S. Constitution. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's opinion, conservatives say, violated the Constitution by failing to provide adequate deference to the political branches -- Congress and the President -- in wartime. Not so, say liberals. The Court vindicated the Constitution by acting as a vital check on one of the worst abuses government can commit: detention without trial. How can the Constitution's structure be invoked on both sides of this question? The answer is that the Constitution . . .

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Cyberbully Faces Charges In Teen's Death

A Missouri woman accused of creating a fictitious character on MySpace to cyberbully a 13-year-old neighbor who then committed suicide pleaded not guilty to federal charges at a Los Angeles court yesterday. The case, lawyers say, could radically affect the way millions of users gain access to the internet.

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NYPD Acquitted After Shooting Unarmed Man 50 Times (On His Wedding Day)

Three detectives were acquitted of all charges Friday in the 50-shot killing of an unarmed groom-to-be on his wedding day, a case that put the NYPD at the center of another dispute involving allegations of excessive firepower.

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Wesley Snipes Sentenced To Three Years For Tax Evasion

A US federal judge has sentenced Hollywood actor Wesley Snipes to three years in prison for failing to file tax returns from 1999 to 2004.

Judge William Terrell Hodges laid down the harshest possible sentence Thursday against Snipes, 45, after the star of "Demolition Man" and the "Blade" vampire movie trilogy was found guilty in February on three misdemeanor counts.

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Vague Arrests Muddle Case In Miami Edison High School Brawl

Most of the Miami Edison High students arrested in a recent school fight will be hard to convict of any crime, legal experts say, because police failed to say in their arrest affidavits exactly what the students did.

Officers responding to the Feb. 29 brawl changed the names and contact information on each student's form, but the charges and descriptions of what happened are almost identical on 23 of the 26 forms.

"Form affidavits are a huge red flag that the arrests were done hastily," said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a Miami lawyer and past president of the local American Civil Liberties Union. "You have to wonder, did the police really make a determination of wrongdoing for every student, or did they just round everybody up and let someone else sort it out?"

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U.S. Supreme Court Protects 4th Amendment Rights Of Automobile Passengers

In Brendlin v. California, No. 06-8120 (June 18, 2007), the Supreme Court held that when police make a traffic stop, a passenger in the car, like the driver, is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes and may challenge the stop's constitutionality.

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