Supreme Court rules on range of issues

Safety from sexual offenders, both in the flesh and in cyberspace, figured prominently among a wide range of issues confronting the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Kansas v. Hendricks, which made its way to the Court via an appeal by the State of Kansas, the Justices will decide whether a state can continue to hold a violent sexual offender who is considered likely to repeat his crimes, but who has served his sentence and does not meet the criteria for being declared mentally ill.

The Kansas Supreme Court last year declared the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Act unconstitutional, finding it to be violative of the constitutional guarantee of due process. The law requires civil commitment in a mental hospital for a sex offender who has served his sentence and is then found in a separate jury proceeding to be still dangerous. The continued confinement is indefinite, with re-evaluation every year.

The defendant in the case, Leroy Hendricks, 60, has a 41-year history of sex crimes against young children. Each time he has been released from prison, he committed a new offense. When his latest sentence ended in August 1994, the state sought his commitment under the Sexually Violent Predator Act. After three weeks of psychiatric testimony, a jury concluded that he was likely to prey upon children if released.

The Court permitted a stay after the law was struck down, keeping Hendricks and five other men incarcerated.


Likely to be on the Court’s calendar will be a Justice Department challenge to a three-judge panel’s ruling blocking a law that bans indecency on the Internet.

In June, the Federal court unanimously granted a preliminary injunction against the Communications Decency Act, which makes it a crime to put “indecent” or “patently offensive” words or images on the Internet where children could see them. Penalties include a $250,000 fine and prison.

In the first major ruling on the issue, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote , “As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet  deserves the highest  protection from Government intrusion.” Judge Dolores Sloviter called the law a “government-imposed, content-based restriction on speech.”


In yet another case that deals with sexual offenses, the Court will decide, in United States v. Lanier, whether a Federal law that makes it a crime for a public officials to deprive persons of their constitutional rights can be interpreted as applying to the sexual harassment and assault of an employee by a Tennessee judge.

The century-old law, the same statute used by the Federal Government to convict two Los Angeles police officers of violating Rodney King’s civil rights, was used to convict state juvenile court judge David Lanier of sexually assaulting five women in his chambers during working hours  sometimes while still in his robes.

The conviction was thrown out last year, however, when a nine-judge majority of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Supreme Court had never ruled explicitly that there is a constitutional right not to be sexually assaulted.


In October, the Court agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to a six-year-old Georgia law  the only one of its kind in the nation  that requires all candidates for public office to pass a drug test before they can appear on a ballot.

The case, Chandler  v. Miller, was brought by Walker L. Chandler, a Libertarian Party candidate for lieutenant governor who found the test both an invasion of his privacy and right of free speech.

The law applies to all three branches of state government, including the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, commissioners of state agencies, the state school superintendent, judges and legislators. It was passed in 1990 as part of a broader legislative effort to require drug testing for all state employees.

The Court has consistently taken the Government’s side in drug-testing issues, the most recent case being a 1995 decision that upheld random testing of student athletes at an Oregon high school. But those decisions have often been narrowly focused on particular circumstances, and were accompanied by stinging dissents from conservative Justices.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Georgia law by stating that while there was little evidence of a drug problem among top state officials, the state was entitled to its view that the “fundamental inconsistency of drug use with the demands of the position” justified urinalysis tests for candidates for office.


Of particular interest to the criminal justice community is how the Court will handle Printz v. United States and Mack v. United States, a pair of challenges to the Brady Law. The Justices agreed in June to settle the matter.

The Brady Law, passed after a long and bitter Congressional battle and strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association, took effect in March 1994, imposing a five-day waiting period before the sale of handguns and a background check of prospective gun buyers.

Sheriffs Jay Printz of Ravalli County, Mont., and Richard Mack of Graham County, Ariz., challenged the law, claiming the background-check requirement put an undue burden on local officials.

Federal appellate courts have been split on the issue, unable to come to a consensus about whether the Brady Law violates the 10th Amendment, which reserves for the states or the people those powers not explicitly given to the Federal Government.

The law has been upheld by the Ninth and Second appellate courts in San Francisco and New York, and struck down by the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.


Among other criminal justice questions tackled in 1996, the Court:

Decided unanimously that police have the right to use a minor traffic violation as a probable cause for searching a motor vehicle for drugs.

Agreed to hear an appeal to determine whether governments can be held responsible for the actions of a rogue police officer. The case stems from a 1991 case in which a Bryan County, Okla., reserve deputy sheriff with a long list of criminal misdemeanors seriously injured a woman during an arrest.

Heard arguments in February over whether blacks are singled out for tougher prosecutions than whites in drug cases  specifically in terms of crack cocaine arrests which carry stiffer penalties than those for powdered cocaine and which disproportionately affect blacks.

Ruled June 24 that the two-pronged strategy of prosecuting a defendant and seizing his property through civil forfeiture does not constitute double jeopardy

Rejected on Oct. 7 a toy manufacturer’s attempt to overturn a New York City law banning the sale of realistic-looking toy guns.

Upheld in March the forfeiture of a car half-owned by a Michigan woman, whose husband had used it without her knowledge to solicit a prostitute.

Reinstated a Montana law that bars defendants from using drunkenness as a defense.

Agreeing with a variety of police organizations in a case involving a former Illinois officer, ruled that Federal courts must allow psychotherapists and other mental health professionals the right not to disclose patient records.

In May, upheld without comment a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that allows police to order any passengers out of a car stopped for a routine traffic violation.


Among significant cases heard by state supreme courts around the country, the California Supreme Court in June unanimously dealt a blow to the state’s “three strikes” law, ruling that a judge may disregard a defendant’s prior convictions if a mandatory “third-strike” is deemed too cruel. Gov. Pete Wilson, a strong proponent of the overturned law, vowed to find some way of putting the teeth back into the measure by either amending it or seeking a referendum.

In Georgia, where two-strikes-and-you’re-out is the rule, the state Supreme Court on June 3 upheld a law that requires life imprisonment without parole for those convicted of a second violent felony.

On Sept. 9, the Georgia Supreme Court declared that police acted legally when they secretly recorded a conversation between two murder suspects in the back of a patrol car. The state justices said people in the back seat of a cruiser have no expectation of privacy.

The Oregon Supreme Court dealt with an eavesdropping issue in April when it ruled that police may not use evidence obtained by illegally listening in on conversations over cordless or cellular telephones.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]