SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK

Proof needed that person knew he couldn’t have gun

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court says prosecutors must prove that people charged with violating federal gun laws knew they were not allowed to have a weapon. The government says the decision could affect thousands of prosecutions of convicted criminals who are barred from having a firearm.

The court ruled 7-2 last Friday in the case of a foreign student from the United Arab Emirates who took target practice at a Florida shooting range, even though he had been dismissed from the Florida Institute of Technology and was in the United States illegally. He was prosecuted under a law that bars people who are in the country illegally from having guns.

Prosecutors never proved that the student, Hamid Rehaif, knew he couldn’t have a gun, and lower courts ruled they didn’t have to.

The same law is also an important tool to keep guns away from convicted criminals. There were more than 6,000 convictions under the law during the government’s 2017 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his majority opinion that the law at issue requires prosecutors to show both that the person had a gun and knew he shouldn’t.

Otherwise, Breyer said, the law could ensnare someone “brought into the United States unlawfully as a small child and was therefore unaware of his unlawful status.”

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a dissent that was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas that the decision “opens the gates to a flood of litigation that is sure to burden the lower courts.”

The gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety had joined the Trump administration in urging the court to reject Rehaif’s arguments.

“We are concerned today’s ruling will make it harder for law enforcement to impose accountability when people keep or acquire guns they’re legally barred from possessing, including due to felony and domestic violence convictions,” said Eric Tirschwell, Everytown’s litigation director.

Rehaif was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Last Friday’s decision may not be the last word in his case. Lower courts will take a new look at its details, including the school’s telling him his student visa would no longer be valid unless he transferred to another school. Prosecutors say Rehaif ignored the warning and instead spent months at a hotel in Melbourne, Florida, never re-enrolling in school.


Landowner can take property case to federal court

By Jessica Gresko
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled last Friday to allow people to sue in federal court when they believe states and local governments have harmed their property rights, handing a victory to a Pennsylvania woman fighting her town over a cemetery ordinance.

The high court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines in favor of Rose Mary Knick. She tried to bring a lawsuit in federal court after her town passed an ordinance that requires anyone with a cemetery on their land to open it to the public during the day.

A town official found several grave markers on Knick’s farmland in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County, but she disputes whether there’s actually a small, family cemetery on her 90-acre property .

Regardless, Knick argued that in adopting the ordinance in 2012 and applying it to her, local officials were in essence taking her property and opening it to the public without paying her for it.

A federal court threw out Knick’s case, ruling she had to go to state court first. But after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Knick will be able to pursue her case in federal court.

Property owners with complaints like Knick’s would often prefer to pursue their cases in federal court, Knick’s lawyers have said, because they may view them as more neutral or objective than state courts, which are sometimes seen as being influenced by local politics.

Local governments previously had the power to take a case like Knick’s that was filed in state court and move it to federal court, but citizens didn’t have the option to begin their cases in federal court.

A 1985 Supreme Court decision had effectively barred people with property rights claims like Knick’s from going to federal court. The Supreme Court last Friday overruled that decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for himself and his four conservative colleagues that it was “not just wrong” but its reasoning was “exceptionally ill founded.”

The court’s ruling means citizens will now have a choice about whether to go to state or federal courts.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself and her liberal colleagues that the decision “smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens.” And she said the decision’s consequence will be to “channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts.”

Knick’s attorney, J. David Breemer, said before the decision that a ruling in Knick’s favor would lead to faster resolutions in similar cases.

“This decision is a very long time coming for Rose and other property owners who have had federal courtroom doors slammed shut in their faces whenever they seek compensation for a governmental taking of their private property,” Breemer said in a statement.

Knick’s town, Scott Township, said in a statement it was disappointed with the ruling but that it believes it will ultimately win when the case goes back to federal court.

In her dissent, Kagan took issue with her colleagues’ reasons for overruling a prior case, and she referenced a dissenting opinion written by her liberal colleague Stephen Breyer last month in another case where the court split along ideological lines in overturning a precedent. Breyer wrote that decision “can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next.”

“Well, that didn’t take long. Now one may wonder yet again,” Kagan wrote.

The justices have 12 cases remaining to issue decisions in by the end of the month. Two offer opportunities to overrule past cases.
The case is Knick v. Township of Scott, 17-647.


Court tosses black man’s murder conviction over racial bias

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court last Friday threw out the murder conviction and death sentence for a black man in Mississippi because of a prosecutor’s efforts to keep African Americans off the jury. The defendant already has been tried six times and now could face a seventh trial.

The removal of black prospective jurors deprived inmate Curtis Flowers of a fair trial, the court said in a 7-2 decision written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The long record of Flowers’ trials stretching back more than 20 years shows District Attorney Doug Evans’ “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals,” with the goal of an all-white jury, Kavanaugh wrote.

In Flowers’ sixth trial, the jury was made up of 11 whites and one African American. Prosecutor Evans struck five black prospective jurors.
In the earlier trials, three convictions were tossed out, including one when the prosecutor improperly excluded African Americans from the jury.

In the second trial, the judge chided Evans for striking a juror based on race. Two other trials ended when jurors couldn’t reach unanimous verdicts.

“The numbers speak loudly,” Kavanaugh said in a summary of his opinion that he read in the courtroom, noting that Evans had removed 41 of the 42 prospective black jurors over the six trials. “We cannot ignore that history.”

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas called Kavanaugh’s opinion “manifestly incorrect” and wrote that Flowers “presented no evidence whatsoever of purposeful race discrimination.” Justice Neil Gorsuch joined most of Thomas’ opinion.

Thomas, the only African American on the court, said the decision may have one redeeming quality: “The state is perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again.”

Flowers has been in jail more than 22 years, since his arrest after four people were found shot to death in a furniture store in Winona,
Mississippi, in July 1996.

Flowers was arrested several months later, described by prosecutors as a disgruntled former employee who sought revenge against the store’s owner because she fired him and withheld most of his pay to cover the cost of merchandise he damaged. Nearly $300 was found missing after the killings.

Defense lawyers have argued that witness statements and physical evidence against Flowers are too weak to convict him. A jailhouse informant who claimed Flowers had confessed to him recanted in recorded telephone conversations with American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast. A separate appeal is pending in state court questioning Flowers’ actual guilt, citing in part evidence that reporters for “In the Dark” detailed.

“A seventh trial would be unprecedented, and completely unwarranted given both the flimsiness of the evidence against him and the long trail of misconduct that has kept him wrongfully incarcerated all these years. We hope that the state of Mississippi will finally disavow Doug Evans’ misconduct, decline to pursue yet another trial and set Mr. Flowers free,” Sheri Lynn Johnson, who represented Flowers at the Supreme Court, said in an emailed statement.

Evans said he remained confident of Flowers guilt but hadn’t decided on retrial, according to American Public Media. However, he denied trying to exclude African Americans from the jury.

In the course of selecting a jury, lawyers can excuse a juror merely because of a suspicion that a particular person would vote against their client. Those are called peremptory strikes, and they have been the focus of the complaints about discrimination.

The Supreme Court tried to stamp out discrimination in the composition of juries in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986. The court ruled then that jurors couldn’t be excused from service because of their race and set up a system by which trial judges could evaluate claims of discrimination and the race-neutral explanations by prosecutors.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had been the nation’s pre-eminent civil rights attorney, was part of the Batson case majority, but he said the only way to end discrimination in jury selection was to eliminate peremptory strikes.

Flowers’ case has been to the high court before. In 2016, the justices ordered Mississippi’s top court to re-examine racial bias issues in Flowers’ case following a high court ruling in favor of a Georgia inmate because of a racially discriminatory jury. But the Mississippi justices divided 5-4 in upholding the verdict against Flowers. The state, defending the conviction, said the justices must narrow the focus from Evans’ broader record to the case at hand.

But Kavanaugh said that even on the narrower basis, there is evidence that at least one prospective black juror for the sixth trial, Carolyn Wright, was similarly situated to white jurors and was improperly excused by Evans.

“The trial court clearly erred in ruling that the state’s peremptory strike of Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” Kavanaugh wrote.
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Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this story from Jackson, Mississippi.

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