Supreme Court Cases, 2017-18 Term

by Jack E. Call, Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail:


Date of oral argument



Ayestas v. Davis


What is the standard for determining whether investigative or expert services are needed to fulfill a federal statute requiring that the accused in death penalty cases receive an adequate defense?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has imposed a high standard for determining when an indigent capital defendant in a habeas corpus proceeding is entitled to federal funds for investigative or expert assistance. The 5th Circuit held that such funding is “reasonably necessary” only when a defendant can demonstrate a “substantial need” for the services contemplated by the statute.  The issue in this case is whether that standard is too high. The decision could have a substantial effect on the ability of indigent death-row inmates to use federal habeas corpus petitions to challenge the effectiveness of their trial lawyers.

Byrd v. U.S.


Whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when he has the renter's permission to drive the car but is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement.

Terrence Byrd’s girlfriend rented a car, but did not include him on the rental agreement. The same evening, Byrd was pulled over for a traffic violation. When police searched the car, they found heroin and body armor. At trial, Byrd argued that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The lower courts disagreed, holding that Byrd lacked standing because he possessed no reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car since “he was not a party to the rental agreement and he did not pay for the rental.”

Carpenter v. U.S.


Did the police conduct a search under the 4th Amendment when they obtained CSLI data from Carpenter’s cell phone provider?


Does one “assume the risk” that the government will end up with this information when one “shares it” with the cell phone provider?

Timothy Carpenter was accused of being the mastermind behind a series of armed robberies in Ohio and Michigan. Law-enforcement officials obtained Carpenter’s cellphone records without a warrant. They relied on the Stored Communications Act, which allows phone companies to disclose cell-site location information (CSLI) records when the government provides them with “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” that records at issue “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” Proof of probable cause that a crime was committed is not required. Investigators received several months’ worth of historical cell-site records, which demonstrated that Carpenter’s cellphone was connected with cell towers in the vicinity of the robberies on the dates of those robberies. Carpenter argues that the records should be suppressed because the government needed a warrant to obtain them.

Chavez-Meza v. U.S.


How much explanation must a District Court judge provide when granting a sentence reduction motion?

After awarding a 135-month sentence (the minimum sentence called for under Federal Sentencing Guidelines), the guidelines were changed to permit a 108-month minimum sentence.  When the defendant asked the court to reduce his sentence to the new minimum sentence, the judge only reduced the sentence to 114 months.  In explaining this sentencing decision, the judge issued what amounted to boilerplate language, indicating that he followed policy statements and sentencing factors set forth in the guidelines in coming to this sentencing decision.  The defendant argues that the guidelines require a more detailed explanation, focusing on the specific facts of the case at hand.

City of Hays, Kansas v. Vogt


Is the 5th Amendment violated if the government uses a statement compelled from the defendant in a probable cause hearing, but not at a criminal trial?

Vogt was a Hays police officer who was accepted for a new position with the Haysville Police Department.  During his interview, he admitted that he had kept a knife that belonged to the Hays PD.  Haysville required him to make Hays PD aware of this fact, which Vogt did.  Ultimately, this lead to a criminal investigation concerning the knife, and two felony charges were brought against Vogt.  His compelled statement about the knife was used at a “probable cause hearing,” but the charges were eventually dismissed.  Therefore, Vogt’s compelled statement about the knife was never used against him in a criminal trial.

Class v. U.S.


Decided 2-21-17: A guilty plea does not waive a defendant's right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which he was convicted.

Class parked his car, containing several lawfully-owned guns, in a marked parking lot within walking distance of congressional buildings in Washington. He was charged with possessing “readily accessible” firearms on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Prior to trial, Class raised a Second Amendment challenge to the statute and lost on the motion. He then pled guilty to the weapons charge as part of a plea bargain.  The written plea agreement did not expressly waive Class’ right to appeal his conviction, although it included other waivers. The district judge’s oral exchange with Class at the time of his plea was less than clear. The judge told Class that he was giving up “your rights to appeal” or “most of your rights to appeal,” unless “there is some other fundamental defect in these guilty plea proceedings.” Class then filed an appeal presenting his Second Amendment claim that the statute is unconstitutional. The government argues (and the court of appeals agreed in this case) that Class’ guilty plea waived his constitutional claims.

Collins v. Virginia


Whether the Fourth Amendment's automobile exception permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter private property, approach a house and search a vehicle parked in the driveway a few feet from the house.

Officers looking for a motorcyclist who had eluded them saw a picture of a motorcycle on Ryan Collins’ Facebook page, found the house where Collins spent at least several nights each week, and located the motorcycle under a tarp toward the back of the driveway, near the house. A police officer walked into the driveway and removed the tarp to find the motorcycle’s Vehicle Identification Number and license tag, from which he learned that the motorcycle was stolen. Collins argues that evidence regarding the motorcycle should be suppressed because the police officer entered the area around his house without a warrant, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Currier v. Virginia


For double jeopardy purposes, does acquittal of a charge of larceny of a safe containing guns prohibit a later prosecution of being a felon in possession of the guns that were in the safe?

Currier was charged with breaking and entering, larceny of a safe (the contents of which included several guns), and possession of firearms by a convicted felon (the guns in the safe).  In order to protect Currier from the jury being aware that he was a convicted felon, the prosecution and defense agreed to try the breaking and entering and larceny charges separately from felon-in-possession charge.  The former two charges were tried first, and Currier was acquitted.  He was then tried and convicted of the felon-in-possession charge.  He argues that the second trial violated his right against double jeopardy, since the jury in his first trial had clearly concluded he had not stolen the safe that contained the guns.  The Virginia Supreme Court (and Court of Appeals) ruled against him.

Dahda v. U.S.


Whether evidence obtained under the authority of a wiretap warrant should be admitted when the judge who issued the warrant exceeded his statutory authority.

The 10th Circuit in this case ruled that a District Court judge exceeded his statutory authority when he issued a wiretap warrant that permitted the interception of transmissions from phones outside of the judge’s district.  Nevertheless, the court permitted use of the intercepted information because it did not violate either of the two core interests under the wiretapping statute – privacy and uniformity.

D.C. v. Wesby


Decided 1-22-2018: There was probable cause to arrest a group of partygoers for trespassing.

The officers arrested several partygoers for trespassing and later charged them with disorderly conduct. Those charges were eventually dropped, but 16 of the partygoers went to federal court, arguing that the police had lacked probable cause to arrest them. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest the partygoers because they had no reason to believe that the partygoers either knew or should have known that they were not allowed in the house. In the court’s view, the homeowner’s statement to the police that he had not given anyone permission to enter the house was insufficient, because the homeowner “never said that he or anyone else had told” the partygoers that they were not welcome.

Hughes v. U.S.


If a defendant enters into a plea agreement under FRCP 11(c)(1)(C) and the sentence called for under the sentencing guidelines changes, may the defendant have his sentence reduced?

Under federal law, a federal district court judge may reconsider a sentence after a later change in sentencing guidelines that reduces the sentencing range for the offense in question.  The government argues that the defendant in this case is not entitled to a reconsideration of his sentence because the sentence that was negotiated between the prosecutor and defense counsel was based simply on what was considered an acceptable sentence to both parties and was not based on a “sentencing range.”

Koons v. U.S.


May a defendant who was given a sentence below a mandatory minimum (for assisting the government) have his sentence reduced when the sentencing range for the offense has been lowered?

Under federal law, a federal district court judge may reconsider a sentence after a later change in sentencing guidelines that reduces the sentencing range for the offense in question.  The government argues that the defendant in this case is not entitled to re-sentencing because his original sentence was below a mandatory minimum established by statute because of assistance he had provided the government.

Lagos v. U.S.


Does restitution under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act extend to legal, expert, and consulting fees incurred by the victim in a criminal fraud case?

Lagos defrauded the General Electric Capital Corporation (GECC) by misleading it about the extent of its accounts receivable.  Lagos’ misrepresentations induced GECC to loan Lagos additional funds under more favorable loan conditions.  When GECC became aware of the fraud, it hired forensic experts to secure data and lawyers to investigate the scope of the fraud.  GECC was awarded restitution for these expenses under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act after Lagos was convicted.

Marinello v. U.S.


May a defendant be found guilty of obstructing administration of the tax laws for destroying business records if he is unaware that the IRS is investigating him?

Marinello ran a fishing business on a cash-only basis.  He made cash deposits and paid his employees in cash.  He did not file tax returns or withhold taxes from the wages paid to his employees.  He routinely shredded his bank statements and other business records.  The shredding of these records formed the basis of charges against Marinello for the obstruction of administration of the tax laws.  Marinello argues that he could not be guilty of obstruction under these circumstances unless he was aware that the IRS was investigating him.

McCoy v. Louisiana


Whether it is unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede an accused's guilt over the accused's express objection.

Robert McCoy was convicted of first-degree murder for the shooting deaths of his estranged wife’s son, mother and step-father. After firing his public defender, McCoy was represented by Larry English. As with his public defender, McCoy maintained his innocence in meetings with English and “emphatically opposed” English’s proposal to concede that McCoy was guilty in the hope that he would be spared the death penalty. McCoy attempted to remove English and represent himself, but the trial court rejected his request on the ground that it came too late: His trial was only a few days away. At trial, English conceded McCoy’s guilt, over interruptions from McCoy. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death. He argues that his guilty plea violated his constitutional right to effective assistance of an attorney.

Rosales-Mireles v. U.S.


Does an error in a sentencing range calculation under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines which no one detects until a case is heard on appeal fall within the “plain error” exception in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure?

When Rosales-Mireles was sentenced for illegal re-entry into the U.S., a prior misdemeanor conviction was erroneously counted twice by the probation officer who conducted the pre-sentence investigation (PSI) in calculating the sentencing range called for under Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The resulting sentence range listed in the PSI was several months higher than the correct range.  No one noticed this error until after Rosales-Mireles appealed his conviction.  Because Rosales-Mireles was unaware of the error, he did not object to the sentencing range.  When no objection is made to an issue prior to appeal, a federal appellate court may not consider the issue unless it falls within the “plain error” provision in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

U.S. v. Microsoft


Whether the government can gain access from email providers to data that is stored overseas.


The federal government obtained a warrant that would require Microsoft to disclose information from a specific email account, which the government believed was being used for drug trafficking. The warrant was issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which permits the government to obtain a warrant for email records when it has probable cause to believe those records are associated with criminal activity. Microsoft argues that the statute does not extend to emails stored overseas. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Microsoft. An evenly divided en banc court left that decision undisturbed.