Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Linda Steinberg, individually and as the sole remaining member and representative of Mendelson Properties, LLC, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Etowah Circuit Court to vacate its order staying the proceedings in her civil case against several defendants. One of the defendants, Lisa Daugherty, moved the trial court to stay discovery regarding discovery requests that had been issued to her on the ground that such a stay was needed to protect her constitutional right against self-incrimination. The trial court granted that motion, but it also stayed the entire case. Because the Supreme Court found the trial court had before it no evidence supporting the stay, the Supreme Court granted the petition and issued the writ. View "Ex parte Linda Steinberg, individually and as sole remaining member and representative of Mendelson Properties, LLC." on Justia Law

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Marcus King George and Alyssa Watson petitioned the Alabama SUpreme Court for certiorari review of the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in Watson v. Alabama, Ms. CR-18-0377, Jan. 10, 2020 (Ala. Crim. App. 2020), which affirmed the circuit court's judgments convicting the pair for felony murder (murder committed during the course of a kidnapping in the first degree), for which they were sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. Central to the State's case against Watson and George was the testimony of Allison Duncan, an intelligence analyst with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency ("ALEA"), analyzing the historical cell-site data of Watson's and George's cellular telephones. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Duncan's testimony analyzing historical cell-site data was lay testimony admissible under Rule 701, Ala. R. Evid., and determined that Rule 702, Ala. R. Evid., had no application to Duncan's testimony. At the request of Watson and George, the Supreme Court granted review in both cases to consider as an issue of first impression whether testimony analyzing historical cell-site data was expert or lay testimony. More specifically, the Court determined, as an issue of first impression, whether Duncan's testimony analyzing the historical cell-site data of Watson's and George's cellular telephones was "scientific" testimony and, thus, subject to the admissibility requirements of Rule 702(b), Ala. R. Evid. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals' judgments and remanded to the trial court for a hearing to be held to determine whether Duncan's scientific testimony satisfied the admissibility requirements of Rule 702(b). View "Ex parte Marcus King George." on Justia Law

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Kary Meadows was confined in a work-release program for eight months after his sentence ended. In 2009, Meadows pleaded guilty to theft, receiving stolen property, and possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to five years; that sentence was split and he was ordered to serve one year in the Walker County Community Work Release Program (operated by WCCC, a private company), followed by four years of supervised probation. In 2012, his probation was revoked, and he was placed under house arrest. In early May 2013, he was removed from house arrest for marijuana violations and placed back in the work-release program, where he was confined at night but released to work during the day. On the day Meadows was supposed to be released from custody, he asked to be released, but Shaver refused. Every day for the next eight months, Meadows asked to be released, insisting that his time had been served and asking to be shown his time sheet. Shaver and his subordinates refused to release Meadows and refused to provide him any document showing when he was supposed to be released or to provide him his prisoner-identification number so he could find his release date for himself. Meadows asserts that Shaver threatened to have him charged with felony escape and placed in a maximum-security facility for 15 years if he ever failed to return to the facility after work, so Meadows continued to spend every night in custody for 8 months. Meadows eventually retained an attorney and filed suit against Shaver and WCCC, asserting claims of of negligence and wantonness, negligence per se, false imprisonment, and money had and received (based on the fees and rent Meadows had paid to WCCC during the eight months he was improperly in custody). Shaver moved to dismiss, Shaver contended that he was not responsible for calculating the end-of-sentence date, nor was he capable of doing so. WCCC likewise moved for a summary judgment, incorporating by reference Shaver's arguments. The trial court ultimately entered judgment in favor of Shaver and WCCC. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed dismissal: "This Court ordinarily cannot reverse a summary judgment on the basis of an argument that reasonably could have been, but was not, presented to the trial court before that court entered the summary judgment." Because Meadows' appellate arguments were not preserved for review, summary judgment was affirmed. View "Meadows v. Shaver et al." on Justia Law

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Natasha Cunningham petitioned for, and was granted, certiorari review of the Court of Criminal Appeals' judgment holding that the offense of possession of a controlled substance was a lesser-included offense of the offense of distribution of a controlled substance. Cunningham's motion for judgment of acquittal as to the distribution-of-a-controlled-substance charge was granted because the evidence did not support that charge. Over Cunningham's objection, the circuit court instructed the jury on possession of a controlled substance as a lesser-included offense of distribution of a controlled substance. The jury returned a verdict finding Cunningham guilty of possession of a controlled substance. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the circuit court properly instructed the jury on the offense of possession of a controlled substance as a lesser-included offense of distribution of a controlled substance. As part of its analysis, the Court of Criminal Appeals recognized that there could be circumstances in which a controlled substance could be distributed without a defendant being in actual or constructive possession of the substance. The court then reasoned that, because there was evidence indicting that Cunningham actually possessed a controlled substance, the jury was free to consider possession as a lesser-included offense of the charged offense of distribution. In reversing the appellate court's judgment, the Alabama Supreme Court found the indictment charging Cunningham with distribution did not include the statutory element of possession, nor did it allege any facts essential to the offense of possession of a controlled substance. Thus, under the facts of this case, because the indictment enumerated only the statutory language for the offense of distribution of a controlled substance, Cunningham was not given sufficient notice that she would have to defend against the offense of possession of a controlled substance. "We look to the indictment and must strictly construe it. To do otherwise would treat the proceedings in this case as if the terms of the indictment were so flexible as to imply a factual allegation that Cunningham was in possession of a controlled substance. To reach such a determination would require us to disregard the law." View "Ex parte Natasha Cunningham." on Justia 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