Tag: criminal procedure

Is the Federal Government Bound by the Agreements It Makes With States?

The Interstate Agreement on Detainers, a compact authorized by federal statute, provides a simple procedure for transferring custody of prisoners between states. Because the federal government annually seeks to prosecute thousands of prisoners already in state custody, it joined the IAD in 1970 to get the benefit of this unified procedure. When it joined, it did so as a “state” for purposes of the agreement, and exempted itself from only two provisions (which aren’t relevant here). One of the provisions that the federal government decided not to exempt itself from, Article IV(a), allows the governor of the sending state to deny any request made by a receiving state to transfer a prisoner.

In September of 2010, Jason Pleau offered to plead guilty to robbery and murder charges in Rhode Island in exchange for life in prison without parole, the harshest sentence that state’s law allows. Pleau’s crimes also allegedly violated federal law, however, and the U.S. government wanted to prosecute Pleau itself in order to seek the death penalty. The federal government thus sought custody through the IAD by filing for the little-known writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum (“show me the body for prosecution”).

The governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, disapproves of the death penalty and used his authority under the IAD’s Article IV(a) to deny the federal request. A federal district court, later affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, overruled Chafee’s denial, stating that the Supremacy Clause prevented the governor from interfering with the federal government’s wishes.

The First Circuit found that the compact’s specific text and the normal canons of statutory construction were “all beside the point.” According to the court, what was important was that Congress could not possibly have meant to grant state governors the power to deny federal transfer requests—and thus the IAD didn’t affect the balance of power between the federal government and the states. The First Circuit thus granted the writ, and Pleau is now in federal custody.

The question presented here, whether the Supremacy Clause trumps a governor’s right to deny a request for transfer of custody under the IAD, raises two important issues: First, if the First Circuit is right, then the federal government may reap the benefit of interstate bargains without having to fulfill its own obligations under them. Second, the First Circuit’s opinion effectively treats the state courts as inferior to the federal courts, which upsets the system of concurrent sovereignty that the Founders designed.

Cato has joined the Independence Institute to file an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case, with a focus on the second issue. We argue that the U.S. legal system has always recognized the dual sovereignty of federal and state courts, dating back to Chief Justice John Marshall. As Chief Justice Marshall explained, that dual system requires that state courts not be considered inferior to federal courts, and thus federal courts have no independent authority to order prisoners under state jurisdiction to be transferred to the federal system.

Furthermore, when abrogating state sovereignty via the Supremacy Clause, Congress must demonstrate its intent to do so with “unmistakably clear language”—and none of the statutes applicable here contain any such language. Finally, we argue that the First Circuit has misinterpreted relevant Supreme Court precedent and that a proper reading of the relevant case law would establish that a state is well within its rights to treat the federal government like any other state under the IAD and deny its request to transfer a prisoner into federal custody.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case of Chafee v. United States and Pleau v. United States later this fall.

More on the Constitution’s Lack of a Drug-War Exception

Challenges to Florida’s unconstitutional drug laws continue to gain momentum. Following a successful federal district court challenge to the constitutionality of state statutes lacking a mens rea requirement (mental culpability, rather than, for example, incidental possession), people convicted under them have come forward en masse to ask Florida courts to reexamine their convictions.

As described in the background to a previous brief in the case of Florida Dept. of Corrections v. Shelton, the district court held that these sorts of laws offend the constitutional guarantee of due process. Florida’s Supreme Court has now consolidated over 40 appeals resulting from that federal court decision (which itself is now on appeal). Cato has once again joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Calvert Institute for Policy Research, Libertarian Law Council, and 38 law professors on a brief supporting the rights of persons convicted under the “strict liability” statutes.

We urge the Florida Supreme Court to follow the federal district court’s lead and strike down laws prohibiting the sale, possession, or delivery of illicit substances without requiring mental culpability. That court now has the opportunity to reverse these unwarranted convictions and purge a nationally singular stain on civil liberties.

The name of the case is Florida v. Adkins.

Thanks to legal associate Paul Jossey for his assistance with this brief and blogpost.

There’s No Drug War Exception to the Constitution

Florida is so zealous in pursuing the war on drugs that its laws classify the possession, sale, and delivery of controlled substances as crimes not requiring the state to prove that the defendant knew he had possessed, sold, or delivered those substances.

In Florida Dept. of Corrections v. Shelton, state prosecutors convicted Mackie Shelton of transporting cocaine under one of these “strict liability” statutes, the trial judge having instructed the jury that the state only needed to prove that Shelton delivered a substance and that the substance was cocaine. Shelton successfully challenged the constitutionality of that state law in federal court, where the district judge overturned the conviction and noted that “Florida stands alone in its express elimination of mens rea as an element of a drug offense.”

Florida appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Cato has joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Calvert Institute for Policy Research, and 38 law professors on an amicus brief supporting Shelton’s position.

The Supreme Court has recognized only limited exceptions to the general rule that criminal culpability requires mens rea (a guilty mind). These “strict liability” crimes fall under the rubric of “public welfare offenses” and are typically what most people would not consider “serious,” such as traffic violations and selling alcohol to minors. Policymakers justify dispensing with mens rea requirements in such contexts by citing the need to deter businesses from imposing costs on society at large, or the burden that having to prove mens rea in these sorts of cases would overwhelm courts, or that the penalties are relatively small and carry little social stigma.

Florida’s legislature, however, went well beyond the normal boundaries of public welfare offenses in imposing strict liability for drug crimes that can carry significant prison terms — and thus violated the due process of law and traditional notions of fundamental fairness. As an alternative argument purporting to save its drug laws, Florida points to the availability of affirmative defenses, that these defenses (e.g., “I didn’t know it was cocaine”) to a presumption of guilty intent take the statute out of the (constitutionally dubious) strict liability category.

But a state may not simply presume the mens rea element of a crime: In Patterson v. New York (1977), for example, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors cannot reallocate the burden of proof by forcing a defendant to prove an affirmative defense. In requiring defendants to prove that they are “blameless” in these sorts of drug crimes, Florida’s statutes fail constitutional muster.

We urge the Eleventh Circuit to affirm the district court’s ruling that the offending state law unconstitutional.