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Game-Changers: Miller v. Ala. and the Term's Top 5 Criminal Issues

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 27, 2012 4:03 PM

The Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama on Monday, holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a mandatory minimum sentence requiring life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders. While a judge can still sentence a juvenile to life without parole, the Court expects such sentences to be few and far between.

The case is the latest in a series of rulings that have relaxed the maximum penalties for juvenile offenders: In 2010, the Court ruled that juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses couldn’t be sentenced to life without parole, and in 2005, the Court banned the death penalty for persons who were under 18 when they committed an otherwise-capital offense.

Now that the Court has decided juvenile life sentences, only one criminal case, the Stolen Valor challenge, remains. That opinion will be issued on Thursday, along with the Affordable Care Act decisions.

Today, however, we're briefly looking at five of the Court's most interesting criminal law decisions from the 2011 Term. From search and seizure to the right to effective counsel, the 2011 Term produced a number of notable opinions. Here are the criminal issues we think are the most significant:

  1. U.S. v. Jones. Instead of analyzing warrantless GPS tracking through the reasonable expectation of privacy lens, the majority held that law enforcement officials crossed a line when they physically planted a GPS tracker on a suspect's car. Since the ruling was based on physical trespass instead of privacy, expect a similar case involving electronic tracking to pop up in the Court before long.
  2. Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders. Non-violent/non-drug offenders can be stripped searched, just like the rest of prison population, because distinguishing between classes of criminals is "unworkable based on the variety of health and safety concerns attached to prisoner intake."
  3. Maples v. Thomas. Federal courts are sticklers for procedural default, but here the Nine ruled that attorney abandonment counts as a good excuse for a procedural default in a death penalty appeal. While it's rare for a death row inmate's appeal to fall through the cracks like this one did, this case makes our list because it captured national attention.
  4. Missouri v. Frye, Lafler v. Cooper. The Court ruled in March that the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel in criminal proceedings applies to plea offers that lapse or are rejected. The Court's decision is already being applied to plea bargain challenges in the appellate courts.
  5. Dorsey v. U.S. The Fair Sentencing Act's lower mandatory minimums apply to the post-Act sentencing of pre-Act offenders. Fairness, according to the Court, can apply retroactively, which means that the appellate courts will see a flood of challenges from defendants sentenced under the former standard.

Which criminal issues do you think will captivate the country during the 2012 Term? First Monday this year is October 1; so after the Court issues Thursday's opinions, you'll only have to wait 95 days for the excitement to start again.

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