Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Davenport, convicted of first-degree murder after a jury trial in Michigan state court. He was visibly shackled at the waist, wrist, and ankles during trial. Davenport’s right hand was uncuffed and there was a privacy curtain around the defense table. The court did not justify the shackling on the record. During an evidentiary hearing on direct appeal, several jurors recalled that they had thought Davenport might be dangerous when they saw him in shackles. The jurors testified that Davenport’s shackling was not discussed during deliberations and did not affect their verdict. After exhausting his state remedies, Davenport challenged his conviction in a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254. The district court found that the shackling was harmless error and denied the petition. The Sixth Circuit reversed and granted a conditional writ. Because “shackling is ‘inherently prejudicial,’” and the evidence of premeditation and deliberation necessary to a first-degree murder conviction was not overwhelming, the state has not met its burden to show the restraints did not have a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” View "Davenport v. MacLaren" on Justia Law

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After a “very public complaint” by a female student, Oberlin instructed its faculty that they should “[b]elieve” students who report sexual assault. Professor Raimondo became Oberlin’s Title IX Coordinator, stating she was “committed to survivor-centered processes.” The Department of Education’s Office notified Oberlin of an investigation into its sexual harassment and sexual assault complaint process. While that investigation was pending, undergraduate “Jane” told Raimondo that “John” had sexually assaulted her. Raimondo appointed Nolan to investigate. Oberlin’s policy states that investigation should usually take no more than 20 days and resolution should take no more than 60. Nolan took 120 days to issue a report. John emailed Raimondo about the impact the investigation was having on his life. Raimondo did not respond with any information. Assistant Dean Bautista was appointed as John’s advisor. The testimony at the hearing was mixed. Bautista “left the hearing early” and, two weeks later, retweeted: “To survivors everywhere, we believe you.” About 240 days after the complaint, the panel found John responsible for sexual misconduct because “the preponderance of the evidence established that effective consent was not maintained for the entire sexual encounter” because Jane was incapacitated from the moment she stated that she was “not sober.” The panel cited no other behavior supporting that finding and did not mention the contradiction between what Jane told Nolan (and others) and what she told the hearing panel. John was expelled. The Sixth Circuit held that John adequately stated a claim that Oberlin violated Title IX. The court noted “clear” procedural irregularities. The record did not support a finding that Jane met the Policy’s definition of “incapacitation.” View "Doe v. Oberlin College" on Justia Law

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Small, a Michigan prisoner, pro se, filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 complaint, alleging that, without provocation, Officer Brock several times brandished a knife, threatened to kill Small, and motioned in a manner suggesting how Brock would use the knife to kill Small. On initial screening, the district court dismissed the complaint under 28 U.S.C. 1915(e)(2), 1915A(b), and 42 U.S.C. 1997e(c). The Sixth Circuit vacated the dismissal. Small plausibly alleged an Eighth Amendment violation. While verbal abuse and nonphysical harassment of prisoners do not alone give rise to a constitutional claim, the combination of multiple, unprovoked verbal threats to immediately end a prisoner’s life and the aggressive brandishing of a deadly weapon can violate the Eighth Amendment. Based on the allegations in Small’s complaint, Brock had no legitimate penological reason for repeatedly placing Small in fear of his life; it is reasonable to infer that Brock knew that his conduct would cause Small psychological harm. Unprovoked and repeated threats to a prisoner’s life, combined with a demonstrated means to immediately carry out such threats, constitutes conduct so objectively serious as to be “antithetical to human dignity.” Neither the force threatened by Brock (death) nor the resulting injury to Small (fearing for his life to the point of paranoia and psychological distress necessitating mental health treatment) was de minimis. View "Small v. Officer Brock" on Justia Law

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In an infamous 2009 incident, the state of Ohio tried to execute death-row inmate Broom by way of lethal injection but was forced to abandon the effort when the execution team concluded—two hours into the process—that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins. The state then returned Broom to his cell, to await a second execution attempt. That second execution attempt has not yet happened. The parties have spent 11 years litigating whether the U.S. Constitution bars Ohio from ever trying to execute Broom again. Broom relies on both the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on “double jeopardy.” The state courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have rejected Broom’s contentions on the merits, as did the district court below on habeas review. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. While calling Ohio’s treatment of Broom “disturbing, to say the least,” the court reasoned that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 permits reversal of a state court merits decisions in only a narrow set of circumstances and the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Broom’s constitutional claims on the merits does not fall within that set of circumstances. View "Broom v. Shoop" on Justia Law

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Plain-clothes Euclid officers approached Wright’s parked SUV with weapons drawn. Thinking he was being robbed, Wright, an African-American, tried to back up. Officers flashed their badges. Wright stopped the SUV. Officers opened the driver’s door. Wright had no weapon. The officers simultaneously deployed a taser and pepper-sprayed him at point-blank range, while Wright remained seated. Wright had trouble getting out because of a colostomy bag stapled to his abdomen. He was recovering from an operation. The encounter caused bleeding. The officers arrested Wright “arising from a drug investigation,” although they found no drugs on him. Wright was detained for more than nine hours and subjected to an intrusive body scan after the officers knew of Wright’s medical condition. No drug-related charges were ever brought against him. The Sixth Circuit reinstated Wright's civil rights case. Even if the officers had no knowledge of Wright’s medical condition, other facts, construed in Wright’s favor, could support a reasonable juror’s finding that Wright did not actively resist. An officer may not tase a citizen not under arrest merely for failure to follow orders when the officer has no reasonable fear for his safety. With respect to the Monell claim, the evidence includes the Chris Rock video, played during the city's use-of-force training, in which the comedian talks about police misconduct. There was an offensive cartoon in Euclid’s police-training manual, showing an officer in riot gear beating a prone, unarmed civilian with a club, with the caption “protecting and serving the poop out of you.” Wright has sufficient evidence of municipal policy. View "Wright v. City of Euclid" on Justia Law

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Detroit police discovered Ralston dead in her home, with multiple stab wounds, plus “defensive-type” cuts and bruises. Ralston was clutching long brown hair, which was never matched to any person. Blood was found throughout Ralston’s house. Days later, police arrested Smith. There was no physical evidence linking Smith to Ralston’s death. Smith’s acquaintances (Dennis and Evans) testified that Smith had confessed to killing a woman “at a safe house” that he had intended to rob. Ralston’s son confirmed that Smith was at the house the night before Ralston's death. Smith was convicted of first-degree felony murder and assault with intent to commit armed robbery. A juror reported that he and others had changed their votes based on a belief that Smith would receive a relatively light sentence for felony murder. The court declined to grant an evidentiary hearing and imposed the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Michigan courts upheld the convictions. Smith returned to state court to (unsuccessfully) seek relief from judgment with an affidavit from Evans’s brother, attesting that he spoke with Evans and Dennis on the day that Smith allegedly confessed, that they said Smith had only said that the police wanted to speak with him, and they thought that they might receive a reward for providing information. The federal district court construed Smith’s habeas claim to be an actual innocence claim and denied relief. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the state court should have granted a post-trial evidentiary hearing to determine whether the jury improperly relied on prejudicial information; there was insufficient evidence for conviction; and the courts erred in refusing to consider new evidence of Smith’s innocence. View "Smith v. Nagy" on Justia Law

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Inmates housed in the low-security Elkton Correctional Institution, on behalf of themselves and others, filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. 2241 to obtain release from custody to limit their exposure to the COVID-19 virus. They sought to represent all current and future Elkton inmates, including a subclass of inmates who—through age and/or certain medical conditions—were particularly vulnerable to complications, including death, if they contracted COVID-19. The district court entered a preliminary injunction in April 2020, directing the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to evaluate each subclass member’s eligibility for transfer by any means, including compassionate release, parole or community supervision, transfer furlough, or non-transfer furlough within two weeks; transfer those deemed ineligible for compassionate release to another facility where testing is available and physical distancing is possible; and not allow transferees to return to Elkton until certain conditions were met. The Sixth Circuit vacated the injunction. While the district court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 2241, that section does not permit some of the relief the petitioners sought. The court rejected the BOP’s attempts to classify the claims as “conditions of confinement” claims, subject to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The district court erred in finding a likelihood of success on the merits of the Eighth Amendment claim. There was sufficient evidence that the petitioners are “incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm” but the BOP responded reasonably to the known, serious risks posed by COVID-19. View "Wilson v. Williams" on Justia Law

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In 2016, Alam pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care and wire fraud for his role in a roughly $8,000,000 Medicare kickback scheme. He received a 101-month sentence. Alam, now 64, suffers from obesity, poorly controlled diabetes, sleep apnea, coronary artery disease, kidney stones, and bladder issues. In March 2020, fearing the health risks created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Alam sent a letter to the prison warden requesting compassionate release. Without waiting for a response, Alam sought emergency relief in federal court. Alam had not complied with the compassionate-release statute’s administrative exhaustion requirement, 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). The district court dismissed Alam’s claims without prejudice. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The exhaustion requirement serves valuable purposes (there is no other way to ensure orderly processing of applications for early release) and it is mandatory, with no exception. The Director of the Bureau of Prisons did not move for compassionate release and Alam waited just 10 days after the warden’s receipt of his request to file his motion, not the required 30 days. While nothing in the administrative exhaustion requirement clearly limits the court’s jurisdiction, it remains a mandatory condition. View "United States v. Alam" on Justia Law

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In a consolidated putative class action based on the Flint Water Crisis, the defendants include government officials from the State of Michigan, the City of Flint, state agencies, and private engineering companies. While government officials like former Governor Snyder and former Treasurer Dillon have been litigating the issue of qualified immunity, discovery against private parties has proceeded. In 2019, the district court granted the government officials’ motions to dismiss claims alleging 42 U.S.C. 1983 equal-protection violations, section 1985(3) conspiracy, Michigan’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, section 1983 state-created danger, and gross negligence. The court denied motions to dismiss plaintiffs’ section 1983 bodily-integrity claim on the bases of qualified and absolute immunity,. The court entered a comprehensive case management order. Snyder and Dillon claimed that they cannot be deposed as non-party fact witnesses with respect to other defendants, arguing that they are immune from all discovery until they have exhausted every opportunity for appeal from the denial of their motions to dismiss based on qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit denied Snyder’s and Dillon’s request for a stay of non-party depositions pending resolution of their appeal from the order denying their request for a protective order, and dismissed, for lack of jurisdiction, their appeal from the denial of a protective order. View "Waid v. Earley" on Justia Law

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In the first trimester of pregnancy, an abortion may be performed by using medication or by using suction to remove the contents of the uterus. Starting around 15 weeks of pregnancy, physicians must use the dilation and evacuation (D&E) method, first dilating the patient’s cervix, and then using instruments and suction to remove the contents of the uterus. Kentucky’s House Bill 454 provides: No person shall intentionally perform or induce or attempt to perform or induce an abortion ... [t]hat will result in the bodily dismemberment, crushing, or human vivisection of the unborn child . . . [w]hen the probable post-fertilization age of the unborn child is eleven (11) weeks or greater.” H.B. 454 forbids D&E abortions on “living unborn” fetuses but does not suggest that physicians induce fetal demise before a D&E. Enforcement of the law was stayed pending resolution of a constitutional challenge. The state argued that H.B. 454 simply required individuals seeking a D&E abortion to first undergo a procedure to induce fetal demise by injecting digoxin into the fetus or amniotic sac, by injecting potassium chloride into the fetal heart, or by cutting the umbilical cord. The district court permanently enjoined the enforcement of H.B. 454, finding that it imposed an undue burden on one’s right to elect an abortion prior to viability, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court concluded that none of the identified procedures was a feasible option for inducing fetal demise and, therefore, H.B. 454 effectively banned D&E abortions. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The burdens imposed by H.B. 454 dramatically outweigh any benefits. H.B. 454 imposes an undue burden on all of the individuals it restricts; facial relief is appropriate. View "EMW Women's Surgical Center P.S.C. v. Friedlander" on Justia Law