Supreme Court Criminal Law Decisions From the October 2017 Term

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The October 2017 term of the United States Supreme Court ends on June 2018. As of this writing, the justices have announced decisions in a number of criminal law and procedure cases.

Law enforcement and telecommunications industry leaders anxiously await the Court’s decision in Carpenter v. U.S., which will determine whether a valid search warrant is needed in order to obtain cell phone “location records” that show a subscriber’s location and movements but do not divulge any information regarding calls made or received.

Class v. the United States

In a 6-3 decision and majority opinion by Justice Breyer that resolved differences among lower court opinions, the Court held that by pleading guilty to a federal firearms offense Mr. Class did not automatically give up the right to challenge the constitutionality of the criminal statute under which he was charged. A dissenting opinion was filed by Justice Alito, who was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. The dissent notes that the majority opinion fails to identify precisely what appellate claims may be allowed when, as here, a defendant who pleads guilty doe not explicitly waive his or her rights of appeal. The high court may, therefore, be called upon to refine its holding in a future case.

District of Columbia v. Wesby

This case arose out of the arrest of Wesby and others for disorderly conduct in connection with a “raucous” party in the District of Columbia. The charges were eventually dropped, and Wesby filed suit. Justice Thomas wrote for a unanimous court in finding that given all of the factual circumstances District police officers had a reasonable basis on which to conclude that Wesby was on the premises without permission, giving them probable cause for the arrest.

Because it found that probable cause existed, the Court was not required to determine whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity from civil liability. It nevertheless did so, ostensibly to correct what the Justices identified as errors in the lower court’s legal analysis.

Sessions v. Dimaya

This “criminal removal” case was originally argued during the Court’s 2016 term, but reargument was ordered due to the vacancy resulting from the death of Justice Scalia. A divided Court held 5-4 that the language of the federal statute authorizing deportation of legally resident aliens who commit “violent felonies” is so vague as to violate the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. Interestingly, the Court relied upon a 2015 decision in which Justice Scalia wrote for the majority in striking down a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act on similar grounds.

Byrd v. the United States

Terrence Byrd was arrested when, following a valid traffic stop, Pennsylvania State Police searched without consent the car in which Byrd was traveling and found drugs and body armor in the trunk. The car was rented by a female acquaintance, and the rental agreement did not name Byrd as an authorized driver. The police, therefore, believed that neither a warrant nor Byrd’s consent was needed in order to conduct the search.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded that despite his not being named in the rental agreement, Byrd had a reasonable expectation of privacy. It remanded the case for consideration of other arguments offered in support of the validity of the search, including a claim that the acquaintance had fraudulently rented the vehicle as a sort of straw party because of Byrd’s prior criminal record.

McCoy v. Louisiana

In a triple murder case, convicted defendant McCoy’s counsel, over McCoy’s objection, admitted McCoy’s guilt. Counsel reasonably believed that this would persuade the jury to sentence McCoy to life imprisonment rather than death. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that a criminal defendant is ultimately in charge of legal strategy decisions in connection with his or her defense, and that counsel may not ignore the defendant’s instructions, even when doing so is objectively the best course of action.

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Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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