Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal 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 In 2012, his probation was revoked, and he was placed under house arrest.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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Bernadine Odom appealed a summary judgment entered in favor of several supervisory officers in the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Department of Public Safety, Highway Patrol Division, in a lawsuit based on the misconduct of a state trooper. In 2015, Odom was involved in an automobile accident. State Trooper Samuel Houston McHenry II responded to the scene. Odom's vehicle was inoperable, so after McHenry investigated the accident, he gave her a ride, ostensibly to a safe location. At 12:12 a.m., he radioed his post dispatcher that he was en route with Odom to an exit about 10 miles from the accident scene. He did not mention his vehicle's mileage as of the time he left the accident scene. Instead of taking Odom directly to the exit, McHenry took her to a wooded area and sexually assaulted her. At 12:21 a.m., he radioed that he was dropping Odom off at the exit, and at 12:25 he radioed that he had completed the drop-off. Within two days, McHenry's employment was terminated based on his misconduct. McHenry was charged with first-degree rape, and he pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct. Odom then filed this civil lawsuit against McHenry and law enforcement officials alleging violations of various law-enforcement policies and procedures, and well as failing to properly train and supervise McHenry. Because Odom could not demonstrate the supervisory defendants were not entitled to State-agent immunity, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed judgment in their favor. View "Odom v. Helms et al." 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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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 State of Alabama petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a mandamus relief. The State sought the vacation of a circuit court order holding certain statutes and acts of Alabama unconstitutional, and to require the Mobile circuit clerk to withhold 10% of the funds collected as court costs and fees from litigants in Mobile County until such time the State adequately funds the clerk’s office. This matter arose out of a criminal proceeding in which a grand jury indicted Mandy Brady for trafficking methamphetamine. Brady posted bond on that charge and was released; however, she was subsequently arrested on a new charge, and the State moved to revoke her bond. The circuit court granted the State's motion and revoked Brady's bond. Despite the fact that Brady was in State custody when the circuit court revoked the bond, Brady did not appear at her scheduled trial on the trafficking charge. When Brady failed to appear, the circuit court issued a show-cause order to the circuit clerk, the Mobile County sheriff, "and/or" the warden of the Mobile County jail seeking an explanation as to why Brady was released from jail despite the fact that the circuit court had revoked her bond. The warden testified that he never received notice from the circuit clerk's office that Brady's bond had been revoked; the circuit clerk testified that an employee in her office had properly entered the circuit court's order revoking Brady's bond before Brady was released from the county jail but that employee apparently failed to send notice of the order to the county jail. The circuit clerk explained that this mistake occurred because she did not have the ability to fully train her employees before giving them the responsibility of managing a circuit judge's docket; ultimately the problem, according to the circuit clerk, was that she did not have adequate funding to retain well trained personnel. The Supreme Court determined the circuit court exceeded its authority in the Brady matter, “purporting to award declaratory and injunctive relief no party had requested.” The State’s petition for mandamus relief was granted. View "Ex parte State of Alabama." on Justia Law