Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, a woman cannot obtain a religious divorce until her husband gives her a “get” contract. A woman who leaves her husband without obtaining a get becomes an “agunah,” subject to severe social ostracism. She may seek relief in a “beth din” rabbinical court, which may authorize the use of force to secure a get. To assist an agunah to obtain a get is a religious commandment of the Orthodox Jewish faith. Stimler, Epstein, and Goldstein participated in the beth din process, working with “muscle men” to kidnap and torture husbands. An FBI agent posed as an agunah and approached Epstein, who stated that “what we’re doing is basically gonna be kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beatin’ him up and torturing him.” On the day of the kidnapping, the rabbis and “tough guys” assembled. Goldstein and Stimler arrived in disguise. The three defendants were charged with substantive kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The government obtained a court order, under the Stored Communications Act, compelling AT&T to turn over historic cell site location information to obtain 57 days of Goldstein’s location history. The Third Circuit affirmed the convictions of the three men, rejecting a due process claim, challenges to evidentiary rulings, and challenges to jury instructions. Respect for religious beliefs cannot trump legitimate government objectives, such as public safety. View "United States v. Stimler" on Justia Law

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Geraci, part of a police watchdog group, attended an anti-fracking protest at the Philadelphia Convention Center, carrying her camera and a pink bandana that identified her as a legal observer. When the police acted to arrest a protestor, Geraci moved to record the arrest without interfering. An officer pinned Geraci against a pillar for a few minutes, preventing her from observing or recording the arrest. Fields, a Temple University sophomore, was on a public sidewalk where he observed officers across the street breaking up a party. He took a photograph. An officer ordered him to leave. Fields refused; the officer arrested him, confiscated and searched Fields’ phone, and opened several photos. The officer released Fields with a citation for “Obstructing Highway and Other Public Passages.” The charge was later withdrawn. Fields and Geraci brought 42 U.S.C. 1983 claims, alleging First Amendment retaliation. Although the Police Department’s official policies recognized their First Amendment right, the district court granted the defendants summary judgment on those claims, finding no evidence that plaintiffs’ “conduct may be construed as expression of a belief or criticism of police activity.” The Third Circuit reversed, noting that every circuit that has addressed the issue has found that the First Amendment protects the act of photographing or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public. View "Fields v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Scott Township in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania enacted an ordinance that authorizes officials to enter upon any property within the Township to determine the existence and location of any cemetery. The ordinance compels property owners to hold their private cemeteries open to the public during daylight hours. Knick challenged the ordinance as authorizing unrestrained searches of private property in violation of the Fourth Amendment and as taking private property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case. While the “ordinance is extraordinary and constitutionally suspect,” important justiciability considerations preclude reaching the merits. Because Knick conceded that her Fourth Amendment rights were not violated and failed to demonstrate that they imminently will be, Knick lacks standing to advance her Fourth Amendment challenge. Knick’s Fifth Amendment claims are not ripe until she has sought and been denied just compensation using Pennsylvania’s inverse condemnation procedures, as required by Supreme Court precedent. View "Knick v. Township of Scott" on Justia Law

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De Ritis became an Assistant Public Defender for Delaware County in 2005. After being promoted to the “trial team,” De Ritis was told, in 2012, that he would be transferred back to the juvenile court unit. De Ritis contends that others told him that he was transferred because De Ritis’s clients were not pleading guilty fast enough. De Ritis assumed the information was accurate. He informed judges, private attorneys, and his colleagues that he was “being punished” for “taking too many cases to trial.” De Ritis did not discuss the issue with his supervisor, Roger. Denied a transfer back to the trial team, De Ritis contacted the County Solicitor, who contacted Roger and was told that De Ritis “was not performing well.” Roger learned of De Ritis’s allegations and fired him. De Ritis brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the termination violated De Ritis’s First Amendment rights. The district court denied the Public Defender’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The Third Circuit reversed. The First Amendment does not protect the speech at issue: statements made while performing official job responsibilities, speculative comments about the reason for a perceived demotion, and recklessly false rumors circulated to government officials. View "De Ritis v. McGarrigle" on Justia Law

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Lambert was charged as a co-conspirator with and accomplice to Tillman’s 1997 acts of murder (Tilman’s former girlfriend’s mother), aggravated assault (Tilman’s former girlfriend), and burglary. Their trial was joint. Before trial, Tillman admitted to the act and claimed mental illness. He made statements to his expert psychiatrist that Lambert had given Tillman a gun. The prosecution presented no direct evidence of any criminal plan between Lambert and Tillman before Tillman’s third return to the house. It relied only on their prior friendship, Lambert’s presence, and that Lambert drove Tillman away after witnessing the shooting. Recognizing that Tillman (who did not testify) would not be subject to cross-examination when the psychiatrist recounted his statements, the trial judge required counsel to redact facially incriminating references to Lambert from that testimony. At trial, the psychiatrist’s testimony, in context, implicated Lambert, who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Third Circuit vacated and remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the Commonwealth used Tillman’s testimonial statements for their hearsay purpose and, if so, whether trial counsel was ineffective in failing to request a limiting jury instruction. The court found ”some merit to his argument that his Confrontation Clause rights were violated.” View "Lambert v. Warden Greene SCI" on Justia Law

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The fathers of minor children in New Jersey challenged the state law governing child custody proceedings between New Jersey parents. In a suit against state court judges, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, they argued that the “best interests of the child” standard that New Jersey courts use to determine custody in a dispute between two fit parents is unconstitutional. The fathers alleged that their parental rights were restricted, or that they were permanently or temporarily separated from their children, by order of the New Jersey family courts without adequate notice, the right to counsel, or a plenary hearing, i.e. without an opportunity to present evidence or cross-examine and that although mothers and fathers are, in theory, treated equally in custody disputes under New Jersey law, in practice courts favor mothers. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit, after holding that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not bar the suit, which was not challenging the state court judgments, but the underlying policy that governed those judgments. The court concluded that the judicial defendants were not proper defendants, having acted in an adjudicatory capacity and not in an enforcement capacity. View "Allen v. DeBello" on Justia Law

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Members of the notorious Salvadoran gang, MS13, shot Serrano-Alberto's brother, leaving him paralyzed; extorted Serrano-Alberto , an acclaimed professional soccer player; and, when he ceased to pay, shot Serrano-Alberto, his nephew, and a neighbor, killing the neighbor and leaving the others in serious condition. Police refused to take a report because Serrano-Alberto did not know the names of the shooters. Fearing reprisal, Serrano-Alberto twice attempted to flee but was returned by Mexican authorities. In 2009-2012, Serrano-Alberto was imprisoned in El Salvador on extortion charges; he was ultimately absolved. Gang members continued to search for him. They shot another his brothers for refusing to divulge Serrano-Alberto’s whereabouts. In 2012, Serrano-Alberto escaped harm in a drive-by shooting by diving under a car. Serrano-Alberto moved multiple times. His mother warned that gang members were continuing to pursue him. In 2014, Serrano-Alberto observed apparent gang members in his new neighborhood and fled to the U.S.He was apprehended and applied for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture. At his hearing, the IJ was “confrontational, dismissive, and hostile, interrupting and belittling Serrano-Alberto’s testimony, time and again cutting off his answers to questions, and nitpicking immaterial inconsistencies.” She ordered removal. The BIA denied relief. The Third Circuit vacated and urged reassignment on remand. The Fifth Amendment protects the liberty of all persons within U.S. borders, including aliens in immigration proceedings who are entitled to a meaningful opportunity to be heard. View "Serrano-Alberto v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Vickers punched his victim once but the victim suffered a fractured skull, brain hemorrhaging, and was in a coma for four days. Pennsylvania law provides that for a criminal case to be tried without a jury, “[t]he judge shall ascertain from the defendant whether this is a knowing and intelligent waiver, and such colloquy shall appear on the record. The waiver shall be in writing, made a part of the record, and signed by the defendant, the attorney for the Commonwealth, the judge, and the defendant’s attorney.” Those procedures were not followed in Vickers’s case. The judge found Vickers guilty. Vickers sought state post-conviction relief, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. Because Vickers’s private attorney had been replaced by a public defender, the attorney was unaware that the process had not been followed, but recommended that Vickers pursue a bench trial for strategic reasons and thought that Vickers wanted a bench trial. The court concluded that Vickers “freely, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his jury trial rights.” Vickers sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of relief. The proper prejudice inquiry is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for his counsel’s deficient performance, Vickers would have exercised his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. He failed to make that showing. View "Vickers v. Superintendent Graterford SCI" on Justia Law

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Officers executed sealed search warrants at the home and office of Fattah. More than two years later, a grand jury indicted Fattah on 23 counts relating to bank fraud and tax evasion. Before the indictment, the press learned about the investigation; reporters waited at Fattah’s home to report the story. At Fattah’s trial, an FBI agent admitted that he had disclosed confidential information to a reporter in exchange for information pertinent to the investigation. Fattah argued that the agent’s conduct violated the Sixth Amendment because the pre-indictment press caused him to lose his job, which rendered him unable to retain the counsel of his choice, and that the agent’s conduct violated his Fifth Amendment right to due process. The Third Circuit affirmed Fattah’s convictions, noting that Fattah’s claim to unrealized income was contradicted by his statements and actions and that the FBI agent’s actions were not “so outrageous that due process principles would absolutely bar the government from invoking judicial processes to obtain a conviction.” View "United States v. Fattah" on Justia Law

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A Harrisburg, Pennsylvania ordinance prohibits persons to “knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate in a zone extending 20 feet from any portion of an entrance to, exit from, or driveway of a health care facility.” Individuals purporting to provide “sidewalk counseling” to those entering abortion clinics claimed that the ordinance violated their First Amendment rights to speak, exercise their religion, and assemble, and their due process and equal protection rights. The court determined that the ordinance was content-neutral because it did not define or regulate speech by subject-matter or purpose, so that intermediate scrutiny applied, and reasoned that it must accept as true (on a motion to dismiss) claims that the city did not consider less restrictive alternatives. The claims proceeded to discovery. In denying preliminary injunctive relief, the court ruled that plaintiffs did not demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits. The Third Circuit vacated. In deciding whether to issue a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs normally bear the burden of demonstrating likelihood of prevailing on the merits. In First Amendment cases where the government bears the burden of proof on the ultimate question of a statute’s constitutionality, plaintiffs must be deemed likely to prevail for purposes of considering a preliminary injunction unless the government has shown that plaintiffs’ proposed less restrictive alternatives are less effective than the statute. View "Reilly v. City of Harrisburg" on Justia Law