Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Petitioners Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall and circuit judges Michael Bradley Almond, Ruth Ann Hall, Brandy Hambright, Jacqueline Hatcher, and Bert Rice, all in their official capacities, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Montgomery Circuit Court ("the trial court") to grant their motion to dismiss a complaint for a declaratory judgment filed by respondents Michael Belcher, Peter Capote, Derrick Dearman, Lionel Francis, Brett Yeiter, and Benjamin Young, all prisoners on death row. Respondents were all convicted of capital offenses and sentenced to death after August 1, 2017, the effective date of the Fair Justice Act ("FJA"), Act No. 2017-417, Ala. Acts 2017 (codified at Ala. Code 1975, section 13A-5-53.1). Respondents alleged the FJA was unconstitutional because it denied them access to courts to present arguments their convictions and sentences were not imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Alabama law and other established constitutional guarantees. The complaint went on to allege that, because of the FJA's alleged prohibition on seeking discovery in postconviction proceedings for death-penalty petitioners, respondents would be unable to assert in their Rule 32 petitions any "Brady" claims for the alleged withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence or to raise any claims of ineffective assistance of counsel that require access to the prosecution's file to establish or to allege many juror claims that require rigorous investigation. Petitioners moved to dismiss on grounds the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded respondents' claims were not ripe for adjudication in this declaratory-judgment action because their claims are inherently fact-specific and must be raised within the context of their six individual Rule 32 proceedings. Therefore, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the respondents' complaint. Petitioners' petition was granted and the Court issued the writ. View "Ex parte Marshall, as Attorney General of the State of Alabama, et al." on Justia Law

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Beverlee Gardner petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for certiorari review of a Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in Gardner v. Alabama, [Ms. CR-18-0368, Sept. 20, 2019] which affirmed the trial court's denial of her motion to suppress certain evidence Gardner contended was seized during an illegal search. Gardner was charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Gardner filed in the trial court a motion to suppress evidence of the 0.2 grams of methamphetamine that formed the basis of the charge against her. Using a confidential informant ('CI'), officers had completed "[c]ontrolled drug buys for heroin" at the residence at which Gardner was staying with two others. The CI had indicated that, during one of the controlled buys of heroin from the two other women in the residence, there was a third person at the back, and the CI did not know who it was. Because Gardner's name was unknown to police before the search, she was not named in the search warrant. Officers found drugs on Gardner following a pat-down search. Before the Court of Criminal Appeals, Gardner argued that the search exceeded the scope authorized for officer safety because, she argued, the detective "grabbed" the item in Gardner's pocket. Gardner argued the methamphetamine found in her pocket was not detected during a reasonable "Terry" search because, she says, the incriminating nature of the methamphetamine was not immediately apparent to the detective. This was so, according to Gardner, because the detective had to "grab a hold of" the "bulge" in Gardner's pocket before she realized that the bulge was consistent with the feeling of methamphetamine. Gardner argues that a "grab" was an "impermissible manipulation" and not a permissible patdown search. The Supreme Court concurred with this argument after a review of the trial court record: officers are not permitted to squeeze or otherwise to manipulate a suspect's clothing to find contraband that the officer knows is not a weapon. Based on testimony, "that appears to be exactly what Detective Dailey did, and Detective Dailey did not testify at the suppression hearing to explain or to provide additional context. Accordingly, based on the facts in the record, the methamphetamine was illegally seized and evidence of it should have been suppressed." View "Ex parte Beverlee Gardner." on Justia Law

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William G. Veitch was a Republican candidate in 2018 for District Attorney of the 10th Judicial Circuit ("Jefferson County D.A.") and a resident of the area of Jefferson County, Alabama known as the Bessemer Cutoff. When he went to cast his vote in the Republican primary, he was not able to vote for the very office for which he was running. In fact, none of his neighbors in the Bessemer Cutoff were. Because of a local law enacted in 1953, residents of the Bessemer Cutoff did not participate in primary elections for Jefferson County D.A. Veitch challenged that law before the 2018 primary, and he continued to maintain that it violated the United States Constitution. The trial court entered a judgment against him. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding the Jefferson County D.A. had the statutory authority to displace the Bessemer Division D.A. and exercise his powers in the Bessemer Cutoff. Because residents of the Bessemer Cutoff were subject to the prosecutorial power of the Jefferson County D.A., they had an equal interest with other Jefferson County residents in who occupied that office. Despite that equal interest, Act No. 138 denied voters in the Bessemer Cutoff the right to participate in the primary election for Jefferson County D.A. That discrimination, the Court held, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and rendered Act No. 138 unconstitutional. View "Veitch v. Friday" on Justia Law

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James Blackman petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus directing Judge James Patterson of the Mobile Circuit Court ("the trial court") to set aside an order setting Blackman's case for trial, to reinstate Blackman's guilty plea that the trial court withdrew sua sponte, and to proceed to sentencing Blackman on his guilty-plea convictions. Because the trial court's sua sponte withdrawal of Blackman's guilty plea subjected Blackman to double jeopardy and thus divested the trial court of jurisdiction to conduct a trial, the Supreme Court granted the petition and issued the writ. View "Ex parte James Antuam Blackman." on Justia Law

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Calvin Barnes petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus to direct the Mobile Circuit Court to vacate its orders revoking his bail and denying his motion to reinstate his bail. The Supreme Court determined the circuit court erred by basing the revocation on an unsupported and unsubstantiated belief that Barnes intended to delay his trial setting and had become a flight risk, rather than on evidence satisfying the requirements for revocation in Rule 7.5. Furthermore, the circuit court erred in denying Barnes's request to reinstate his pretrial bail -- a right to which he was entitled under the law, regardless of the heinousness of the crime he was accused of committing. Because the Supreme Court determined the circuit court acted beyond its authority, the Supreme Court granted the petition and issued the writ. View "Ex parte Calvin Barnes." on Justia Law

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On April 27, 2015, Charles Hunter ran a red light at an intersection within the corporate limits of the City of Montgomery. At some point "within the past two years," Mike Henderson also ran a red light at another intersection within the corporate limits of the City. The automated-camera equipment at the intersections detected and photographed the plaintiffs' vehicles running the red lights. The City of Montgomery ("the City") and American Traffic Solutions, Inc. ("ATS") (collectively, "the defendants"), were granted a permissive appeal of a circuit court order denying their motion to dismiss a complaint, seeking, among other things, a declaratory judgment, filed by plaintiffs Hunter and Henderson. In their complaint, plaintiffs challenged a local municipal ordinance authorizing the use of cameras for issuing traffic citations. Plaintiffs claimed that Act No. 2009-740, Ala. Acts 2009, and sections of the Montgomery Municipal Code allowing for the ticketing of drivers who were photographed proceeding through red lights violated sections 89, 104, and 105, Ala. Const. 1901. The Alabama Supreme Court determined there was no justiciable controversy between the parties at the time the declaratory-judgment action was filed, therefore, the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the action, and should have dismissed it. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's order denying the motion to dismiss, and the matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "City of Montgomery v. Hunter" on Justia Law

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Marvin Gray sought mandamus relief to direct the Montgomery Circuit Court to dismiss a complaint filed against him by Ruthie Thomas. In 2017, Thomas was involved in an automobile accident with Gray in a Montgomery parking lot. In 2019, she filed suit. Eighty-nine days after she filed her original complaint, Thomas moved to amend her complaint, asserting she made multiple "scrivener's errors" resulting in the incorrect identification of one of the defendant in the original complaint. In the amendment, Thomas named Gray as defendant in place of another person involved in the accident. Gray filed a motion to dismiss the claims against him, asserting that he was not added as a defendant until after the statute of limitations had expired. Gray argued that the amended complaint did not relate back to the filing of the original complaint because, he argued, it did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 9(h), Ala. R. Civ. P., regarding fictitiously named defendants. In particular, Gray asserted that Thomas was aware of Gray's name 12 days following the accident and well before the expiration of the statute of limitations. Because the Alabama Supreme Court concluded the amended complaint related back to the filing of the original complaint under Rule 15, Ala. R. Civ. P., it denied Gray's petition. View "Ex parte Marvin Gray." on Justia Law

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The State of Alabama petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to review the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision to grant mandamus relief to R.E.D. R.E.D. had asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate a circuit court order denying his request for a jury trial on the issue whether the State intentionally committed misconduct during R.E.D.'s first trial so as to goad R.E.D. into requesting a mistrial and to enter an order granting his jury-trial request. The Supreme Court granted certiorari review to determine whether the Court of Criminal Appeals' order vacating the trial court's ruling was in conflict with Ex parte Adams, 669 So. 2d 128 (Ala. 1995), and/or Pettibone v. Alabama, 91 So. 3d 94 (Ala. Crim. App. 2011). After that review, the Supreme Court concluded the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision was in conflict with both Ex parte Adams and Pettibone, and, thus, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals' order. View "Ex parte State of Alabama" on Justia Law

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The Talladega County Commission ("the Commission") appealed a trial court's dismissal of its mandamus petition filed against the Commission by the City of Lincoln ("the City"), that left in place a prior order interpreting provisions of a local act. At issue was a dispute between the Commission and the City regarding the interpretation of Act No. 91-533, Ala. Acts 1991 ("the Act"), as amended by Act No. 2000-758, Ala. Acts 2000 ("the amended Act"). The Act, which local to and operative only in Talladega County, levied special county "privilege license and excise taxes" in parts of Talladega County located outside the corporate limits of cities within the county. Initially, the Act required the revenues from the taxes to be used for the retirement of the County's indebtedness. The amended Act, enacted after the retirement of the County's indebtedness, created the "Talladega County Special Tax Fund" ("the fund") into which all revenues from the taxes, less the costs of collection, were to be deposited. The City claimed in its petition that the Commission did not have any discretion to withhold the disbursement of moneys contained in the fund once the delegation had authorized the disbursement. The City asked the trial court to order the Commission to disburse $494,639 collected to the City as had been recommended by the TCEDA and approved by the delegation. In order to resolve the Commission's declaratory-judgment counterclaim, the trial court was required to determine whether the Commission had authority under the amended Act to "veto, overrule, or otherwise deny" the delegation's approval of the TCEDA's recommendation. At the time the trial court entered the October 30 order on the Commission's declaratory- judgment counterclaim, the Alabama Supreme Court determined there existed a clear justiciable controversy between the City and the Commission concerning the Commission's duties and authority under the amended Act. Once State representatives withdrew their approval, a necessary precursor to the disbursement of moneys from the fund under the amended Act, the City was no longer entitled to the funds and there ceased to be a controversy between the City and the Commission. The Supreme Court therefore determined the action was moot and dismissed the appeal. View "Talladega County Commission v. State of Alabama ex rel. City of Lincoln" on Justia Law

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GEICO Insurance Company appealed a trial court judgment entered in favor of plaintiffs Johnson Evans, Jimmy Smith, and Bernard Smith on plaintiffs' claims for damages resulting from an automobile accident caused by GEICO's insured, Bernard Grey. GEICO argued that the April 17, 2019, judgment entered against it was void because it did not receive notice of plaintiffs' claims against it or notice of the hearing on plaintiffs' claims. For their part, plaintiffs did not dispute that GEICO never received actual notice of any action pending against it in the present case. Instead, they argued GEICO had "constructive notice of potential litigation" because it had actual notice of Grey's accident involving plaintiffs -- which occurred in 2010 -- and that GEICO was aware that plaintiffs claimed to be injured by Grey's actions. The Alabama Supreme Court agreed with GEIDO that "constructive notice of potential litigation" clearly fell short of "even the most basic requirements of due process." Because it was undisputed GEICO never received notice of any claim pending against it, the April 17 judgment violated due process, and was therefore void. Because a void judgment would not support an appeal, the trial court was instructed to vacate its judgment, and GEICO's appeal was thus dismissed. View "GEICO Insurance Co. v. Evans" on Justia Law