Supreme Court Opinions

The Federal Docket

Counterman v. Colorado (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2023)

At issue was whether the First Amendment requires that prosecutors in a “true threats” case show that a defendant’s speech is not only objectively threatening, but that the defendant was subjectively aware of their threatening character. In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment requires that the State prove a defendant had “some subjective understanding of his statements’ threatening nature,” though the State can prove that under a recklessness standard by showing that a defendant consciously disregarded the threatening nature of his communications.

SCOTUS Issues Two Opinions Limiting the Scope of Federal Fraud Statutes

This month, the Supreme Court issued two noteworthy opinions limiting the scope of federal fraud statutes, specifically those that prohibit “honest services fraud.” Under 18 USC 1346, a “scheme or artifice to defraud includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

In Ciminelli v. United States, the Court unanimously invalidated the conviction of a construction company owner who had engaged in bid rigging for government contracts, which deprived the government of “potentially valuable economic information necessary to make discretionary economic decisions.” As a result, the trial court instructed the jury that “property” as defined under the fraud statute, included “intangible interests such as the right to control the use of one’s assets.”

The Court held that this was error, as the right to such intangible but “valuable economic information” was not a “traditional property interest” protected by the statute. The Court’s holding will likely be used to challenge future fraud prosecutions involving intangible losses.

In Percoco v. United States, the Court invalidated another defendant’s conviction, this time that of a former official in the Governor’s office in New York who, while on hiatus from his official role to assist in the governor’s campaign, accepted money to advise a real estate development company in its dealings with a state agency. Specifically, Percoco had lobbied internally to urge other officials to ease certain work requirements for the company, which received government funding.

The Court held that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that it could convict Percoco of honest services fraud, even while not serving as a public official, if it found that he “dominated and controlled any government business” and that “people working in the government actually relied on him because of a special relationship he had with the government.” The Court held these instructions were too vague and swept too broadly. However, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that a private citizen cannot be convicted of depriving the public of honest services, reserving the question whether some private citizens could have the “necessary fiduciary duty to the public.”

Ruan v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court held that the prosecution in a “pill mill” case, where a doctor has been charged with unlawfully prescribing drugs, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the doctor was acting in a manner not authorized by the statute, i.e. that the doctor knew that their prescribing practices were unauthorized and was not acting in “good faith.” Previously, doctors could be convicted if their prescriptions were not for a legitimate purpose or otherwise not within the usual course of a professional medical practice–a standard resembling negligence.

Concepcion v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court held that courts considering an inmate’s motion to reduce sentence pursuant to Section 404(b) of the First Step Act, which applies to crack-cocaine convictions, may consider all relevant materials when considering whether to modify, and by how much, the inmate’s sentence. Some legal scholars believe the opinion should help resolve the circuit split regarding what circumstances a court can consider when reviewing an inmate’s motion for “compassionate release.”

Vega v. Tekoh (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court held that an officer’s interrogation in violation of Miranda does not create a constitutional claim under 42 USC 1983. The Court took a narrow view of Miranda warnings as merely a vehicle to protect other underlying rights, not as an underlying right itself.

Nance v. Ward (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court held that a 1983 claim was the proper vehicle for a death row inmate challenging his manner of execution.

Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the federal government and state government have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed against Indians in Indian country, notwithstanding its recent holding in McGirt v. Oklahoma or Chief Justice Marshall’s 1832 decision in Worcester v. Georgia.

Denezpi v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court held that the double jeopardy clause does not prohibit subsequent prosecutions under two different codes, here the U.S. Code and the Ute Mountain Ute Code, based on the same underlying conduct. The Court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment prohibits multiple prosecutions for the same “offense,” and offenses are separate if they are defined by separate sovereigns, even if their elements are identical.

Denezpi v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed a defendant’s federal conviction, rejecting the defendant’s argument that he could not be prosecuted by the feds after they had already prosecuted him for violations of tribal law based on the same conduct. The Court reasoned that, regardless of the fact that the federal government prosecuted both cases, the offenses being prosecuted were distinct because they were defined by distinct sovereigns–the federal government and the Utes sovereign reservation.

United States v. Taylor (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that attempted Hobbs Act robbery does not qualify as a “crime of violence” under 924(c) “because no element of the offense requires proof that the defendant used, attempted to use, or threatened to use force.” Applying the categorical approach, the Court held that a generic defendant could be convicted of attempted Hobbs Act robbery without using or threatening force based simply on their “intent” and their taking a non-forceful “substantial step.”

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