Supreme Court Notebook

Justices rule for Arizona church  in sign dispute
WASHINGTON (AP) —” A unanimous Supreme Court has ruled for an Arizona church in a dispute over a town’s sign law.

The law in Gilbert, Arizona, set tougher rules for signs that direct people to Sunday church services than for signs for political candidates and real estate agents.

The Good News Community Church complained that the law forced the church to put up smaller signs than those for political candidates, real estate agents and others.

The church’s signs also could be in place for short periods of time.
Lower federal courts upheld the town’s sign ordinance, saying that the distinction it drew between different kinds of temporary signs was not based on what a sign said.

Supreme Court grants reprieve to death-row inmate

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has barred Louisiana from executing a convicted killer, saying his mental disability precludes capital punishment.

The ruling comes in a 5-4 decision Thursday.

Kevan Brumfield was convicted in the shooting death of off-duty Baton Rouge police Cpl. Betty Smothers in 1993.

A federal judge ruled that Brumfield was mentally disabled and therefore was protected from execution under a Supreme Court decision in 2002.

But the federal appeals court in New Orleans reversed the judge’s ruling.

Brumfield and Henri Broadway of Baton Rouge were convicted and sentenced to death for ambushing Smothers on Jan. 7, 1993 as she was driving a grocery store manager to make a bank deposit.

The 36-year-old Smothers was working as an off-duty security officer at the time.

Synthetic drug sellers must know substance illegal

WASHINGTON (AP) — A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Thursday that people accused of selling synthetic drugs can’t be convicted unless prosecutors show they knew the substance was prohibited by law.
The ruling could make it tougher for prosecutors to convict people selling a new wave of drugs designed by rogue chemists to produce a high, but with slight chemical modifications that keep them off state and federal banned drug lists.

The justices sided with Stephen McFadden, a New York City man convicted of supplying bath salts to a store in Charlottesville, Virginia, in plastic bags or vials with names like “Speed,” ‘’No Speed” and “The New Up.”
McFadden was convicted in 2013 of violating the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act, which punishes those who knowingly or intentionally sell a controlled substance or analogue — a knock-off that has a “substantially similar” chemical structure and mimics the effect of a banned substance.

A federal appeals court ruled it was enough for a jury to find that McFadden intended the bath salts for human consumption. But McFadden argued that the government had to prove he knew the bath salts were similar in both chemical structure and effect to a controlled substance.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said prosecutors must prove either that a defendant knew the substance was a “controlled substance” banned under federal drug laws or that he knew it was an “analog” with a chemical structure substantially similar to that of a banned drug.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court to determine whether the incorrect jury instruction was harmless, meaning that McFadden’s conviction could still be upheld.

Prosecutors had pointed to telephone recordings of McFadden’s conversations with the store owner in Virginia in which he discussed which of his products was the “most powerful” and gave the most “intense” feeling. He also compared the effects to meth and cocaine.

McFadden’s lawyers say the law was designed to target clandestine chemists who design the analogues, not street-level distributors who don’t understand the chemical makeup of the substance and may not realize what they are selling is substantially similar to controlled substances.

Justice Department lawyers argued that the law was meant to curb the flow of illegal drugs and knock-offs. They say McFadden’s reading of the law would unfairly hinder law enforcement’s ability to go after distributors.

Court reinstates conviction in death penalty
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has reinstated the conviction and death sentence of a California man convicted of murder — even though a lower court found that prosecutors illegally excluded blacks and Hispanics from the jury.
The justices ruled Thursday that Hector Ayala wasn’t entitled to argue that prosecutors systematically excluded minority jurors during his 1989 trial for a triple murder during a drug robbery in San Diego.
A divided California Supreme Court found there were trial errors but they were harmless.
A federal court rejected Ayala’s challenge. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Ayala was denied a fair trial because prosecutors excused all seven potential jurors who were black or Hispanic.
The Supreme Court ruled that the 9th Circuit should have deferred to state court proceedings.