Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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In 2012, minor political parties challenged Pennsylvania’s election laws under the First and Fourteenth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. 1983. Minor parties gather a considerable number of signatures to place candidates on the ballot; the validity of those signatures can be challenged. A successful challenge may result in an award of costs (which may be considerable). The threat of these high costs has deterred some candidates. The court held that the statutes were, in combination, unconstitutional as applied to the parties, and ultimately adopted the Commonwealth’s proposal, based on a pending Pennsylvania General Assembly bill, that minor party candidates be placed on the ballot if they gather two and one-half times as many signatures as major party candidates must gather for the office of Governor, at least 5,000 signatures must be gathered with at least 250 from at least 10 of the 67 counties. For other statewide offices, the bill required 1,250-2,500 signatures with at least 250 from at least five counties. The court did not find any facts, nor explain its decision. The Third Circuit vacated, finding the record inadequate to support the signature gathering requirement. The appropriate inquiry is concerned with the extent to which a challenged regulation actually burdens constitutional rights and is “fact-intensive.” The court can impose the county-based signature-gathering requirements if it concludes that the requirements would have no appreciable impact on voting rights. View "Constitution Party of Pennsylvania v. Cortes" on Justia Law

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Harrisburg Officer Simmons, conducting undercover surveillance, heard a dispatch about gunshots east of his location, describing two potential suspects in dark-colored hooded sweatshirts, walking west. Minutes later, Simmons observed two men in dark-colored hooded sweatshirts walking west. Graves had a “pronounced, labored” gait and tense arms, suggesting that “he may have concealed something heavy.” Simmons yelled “Police,” handcuffed Graves, and conducted a pat-down search, during which he felt “multiple small hard objects” in Graves’ front pockets. The objects felt like crack cocaine but were packets of Depakote and one bullet. Graves admitted that he had a loaded pistol in his boot. Graves was charged with possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number, 18 U.S.C. 922(k); 924(a)(1)(B) and unlawful possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2); 924(e). After denial of his motion to suppress, Graves pled guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm. The court treated Graves as a career offender, finding that his two convictions for North Carolina common law robbery were the categorical equivalent of the enumerated crime of robbery, U.S.S.G. 2K2.1. The Third Circuit affirmed. Simmons had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was underway and did not exceed the bounds of a valid protective frisk. Under the Guidelines, generic federal robbery is defined as in the majority of state robbery statutes, without the requirement of more than de minimis force; North Carolina common law robbery and generic federal robbery contain the same elements. View "United States v. Graves" on Justia Law

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Barna attended a School Board meeting and expressed concerns on behalf of himself and friends. Board President Markovich responded that Barna should bring his friends. Barna replied, “my friends have guns.” Markovich asked Barna to leave a subsequent meeting. Barna stated: “I may have to come after all of yous” and went after a Board member. A security guard restrained Barna. The superintendent informed Barna that he could attend Board meetings but would be banned from future attendance if he engaged in disorderly conduct. Barna subsequently attended meetings without incident until, in October 2011. Barna became confrontational after being denied the opportunity to ask questions, stating: “Do you want to fight?” During a recess, Barna uttered “[s]on of a bitch” within earshot of attendees. The Board solicitor sent Barna a letter barring him from attending Board meetings, school extracurricular activities, and from “be[ing] physically present” on the campus. Barna was permitted to submit written questions, which the Board would answer in a timely manner. Barna sued, alleging violations of his First Amendment right to free speech and First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from unconstitutional prior restraint. The court granted defendants summary judgment, citing qualified immunity. The Third Circuit affirmed in favor of the individual officials in their individual capacities but vacated with respect to the Board and the individual officials in their official capacities. The district court overlooked Supreme Court precedent that municipalities do not enjoy qualified immunity from suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983. View "Barna v. Board of School Directors Panther Valley School District" on Justia Law

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Pennsylvania State Trooper Kendra, age 26, attended routine firearm safety training led by then-Corporal Schroeter, a trained firearms instructor who had been a police officer for about 20 years. Schroeter had acknowledged in writing a list of firearms safety rules for instructors, including several rules for verifying that guns are not loaded, Schroeter violated each of these rules, raised a gun, pointed it at Kedra, and pulled the trigger. The gun was loaded. Kendra died hours later. Schroeter pled guilty in state court to five counts of reckless endangerment of another person. Kedra’s mother filed a federal civil rights complaint against Schroeter. Because the complaint did not allege that Schroeter had actual knowledge that there was a bullet in the gun, the district court held that Schroeter was entitled to qualified immunity. The Third Circuit reversed. While the objective theory of deliberate indifference was not clearly established at the time of the shooting, obviousness of risk is relevant to proving actual knowledge and the allegations of the complaint were more than sufficient to support a reasonable inference that Schroeter had such knowledge, so the complaint adequately pleaded a state-created danger claim under a then-clearly established theory of liability. View "Kedra v. Schroeter" on Justia Law

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Mullin, age 29, had been in and out of prison and struggled with substance abuse. Serving a sentence at a halfway house, Mullin was found in possession of contraband and was transferred to New Jersey’s Central Reception & Assignment Facility, where he was assessed and assigned to an area that did not feature extensive or individualized supervision. In his Assignment Facility cell, he fashioned a noose from a bedsheet and took his own life. Mullin’s mother, Joan, was given information that was incomplete and inaccurate; she was told that her son had died at a different facility, an error repeated on his death certificate. More than two years into Joan’s civil-rights suit, her attorney received a previously-undisclosed investigative report that contained statements by fellow inmates about a guard who allegedly refused Mullin’s requests for psychiatric assistance and urged Mullin to kill himself. Due to a clerical error, the disc containing those disclosures was misfiled, and not accessed until 10 months later. By that time, Joan’s complaint, premised on a knew-or-should-have-known theory of vulnerability to suicide, had been partially dismissed. The district court denied a request for leave to amend and granted the remaining defendant summary judgment. The Third Circuit vacated. Denying leave to amend was an impermissible exercise of discretion. Some factors relied upon to deny leave are not supported by the record or are at odds with precedent. Counsel’s mistake does not, alone, support the denial. View "Mullin v. Balicki" on Justia Law

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Zimmerman, a former employee of the Pennsylvania legislature, sued current and former high ranking officials of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, including a former Attorney General who subsequently became Governor, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the defendants were all involved in bringing criminal charges against him and that those charges amounted to malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and Pennsylvania law. Zimmerman was one of nine staff members arrested after the “Computergate” investigation, which involved receiving bonuses for campaign-related work performed on state time. Zimmerman was charged with intentionally hindering an investigation “by concealing or destroying evidence of a crime.” The charges were subsequently dismissed. The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings. There was probable cause to initiate those criminal proceedings; Zimmerman cannot establish a prima facie case of malicious prosecution. View "Zimmerman v. Corbett" on Justia Law

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J&S sought Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. The estate's largest asset was an Altoona, Pennsylvania building, in which Phoenician previously operated a restaurant. Trustee Swope rejected Phoenician’s lease to facilitate the building's sale. Phoenician attempted to remove property from the closed restaurant; Swope objected. After learning that Phoenician had canceled its insurance and that heating could be an issue with anticipated frigid weather, Swope met with Phoenician’s principal, Obeid and a contractor. Obeid gave Swope a key to the premises; the contractor recommended that the thermostat be set to 60 degrees. Obeid did not do so, the pipes burst, and the property flooded. A disaster restoration company refused to work on the property. Swope asked for another meeting to assess the damage. Obeid demanded that the meeting be rescheduled and held without J&S's principal, Focht; Swope declined, tried to inspect the premises, and discovered the key Obeid had given her did not work. Focht then had the locks changed. Swope retained the only key and provided both parties with only “supervised access.” Phoenician unsuccessfully sought to regain possession. The court indicated that Swope was protected by the automatic stay, which precluded Phoenician from interfering with the property, and dismissed Phoenician’s suit against Swope under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for wrongful eviction, claiming Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations. The Third Circuit agreed that Swope was entitled to qualified immunity and took appropriate action to preserve the Estate Property without violating clearly-established law. View "J & S Properties, LLC v. Phoenician Meditteranean Villa, LLC" on Justia Law

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Despite repeatedly asserting his innocence, Satterfield was convicted of first-degree murder in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. After years of direct and collateral litigation, the district court, acting on his habeas petition, found that his ineffective assistance of counsel claim meritorious. The Third Circuit reversed, finding his petition barred by Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA’s) one-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(1). Years later, the Supreme Court decided, in McQuiggin v. Perkin, that a petitioner who can make a credible showing of actual innocence can overcome that limitations period. Satterfield sought relief from the judgment denying his habeas petition, characterizing McQuiggin’s change in law as an extraordinary circumstance to justify relief under FRCP 60(b)(6). The district court denied Satterfield’s motion. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that changes in decisional law may, under certain circumstances, justify Rule 60(b)(6) relief. “A district court addressing a Rule 60(b)(6) motion premised on a change in decisional law must examine the full panoply of equitable circumstances in the particular case.” In this case, the court did not articulate the requisite equitable analysis. If Satterfield can make the required credible showing of actual innocence, an equitable analysis would weigh heavily in favor of deeming McQuiggin’s change in law, as applied to Satterfield’s case, an exceptional circumstance justifying Rule 60(b)(6) relief. View "Satterfield v. District Attorney Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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Mann, a Palmerton Area School District football player, experienced a hard hit during a practice session. While some players thought that Sheldon may have been exhibiting concussion-like symptoms, he was sent back into the practice session by Coach Walkowiak. Sheldon then suffered another violent collision and was removed from the practice field. He was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Sheldon’s parents asserted that Walkowiak violated Sheldon’s constitutional right to bodily integrity under a state-created danger theory of liability and that the District was accountable under a “Monell” theory. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Walkowiak’s alleged conduct, if proven at trial, would be sufficient to support a jury verdict in favor of Mann on his state-created danger claim, but the right in question—to be free from deliberate exposure to a traumatic brain injury after exhibiting signs of a concussion in the context of a violent contact sport—was not clearly established in 2011. Walkowiak was entitled to qualified immunity. There was not sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial on the Monell claim against the District. View "Mann v. Palmerton Area School District" on Justia Law

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In 1997, Wilkerson and Hill had a verbal confrontation. Wilkerson struck Hill in the head with a gun, then shot Hill in the chest. Wilkerson was charged with multiple crimes. In jury instructions, the judge stated that an attempted murder conviction would require a finding Wilkerson “did a certain act,” “alleged to be a shooting,” while a conviction for aggravated assault would require finding “that [Wilkerson] caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury.” The judge did not specify that the shooting could not both serve as the basis for an attempted murder conviction and as the “attempt[] to cause serious bodily injury” for aggravated assault. The jury convicted on both counts on a general verdict form that did not specify whether the “serious bodily injury” finding underlying the aggravated assault conviction related to the shooting or the preceding assault. In federal habeas proceedings, the Third Circuit rejected Wilkerson’s double jeopardy argument that the jury instructions permitted conviction on both offenses based on the shooting alone. The state court’s rejection of that claim was not “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” The court rejected, as untimely, Wilkerson’s “Apprendi” challenge to the imposition of an enhanced sentence for attempted murder based on a finding by the judge, but not the jury, that the victim suffered serious bodily injury and a claim that counsel was ineffective for not objecting to that finding. View "Wilkerson v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law