While statutes and regulations define many crimes, understanding the nuances of criminal law also requires exploring cases that have interpreted common-law, statutory, and constitutional principles. Among other things, courts have helped shape the criminal justice system, outline what the prosecution must prove to get a conviction, and define the strategies that a defendant can use to protect their freedom. Below is an outline of key cases in criminal law with links to the full text of virtually every case, provided free by Justia.
The doctrine of due process provides that a defendant cannot face criminal penalties unless the law clearly prohibits their conduct. Criminal laws should be understandable to ordinary people and should not pose a risk of arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement.
McBoyle v. U.S. 一 A fair warning should be given to the world, in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed.
Smith v. U.S. 一 A criminal who trades his firearm for drugs uses it during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime within the meaning of the federal statute.
Commonwealth v. Mochan 一 The common law is sufficiently broad to punish as a misdemeanor, although there may be no exact precedent, any act that directly injures or tends to injure the public to such an extent as to require the state to interfere and punish the wrongdoer.
Chicago v. Morales 一 Vagueness may invalidate a criminal law if it fails to provide the kind of notice that will enable ordinary people to understand what conduct it prohibits, or if it authorizes or encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.
Keeler v. Superior Court 一 An unforeseeable judicial enlargement of a criminal statute, applied retroactively, operates like an ex post facto law, which the Constitution forbids.
Rogers v. Tennessee 一 A judicial alteration of a common-law doctrine of criminal law violates the principle of fair warning, and thus must not be given retroactive effect, only when it is unexpected and indefensible by reference to the law that had been expressed prior to the conduct at issue.
Elements of a Crime
Most crimes contain act (actus reus) and mental state (mens rea) elements. Sometimes the act element involves a failure to act when a defendant was subject to a legal duty. The four main mental states, in descending order of culpability, are intent (or purpose), knowledge, recklessness, and criminal negligence.
Martin v. State 一 A criminal act must be voluntary to support a conviction.
Jones v. U.S. 一 A defendant may be held criminally liable for breaching a legal duty through a failure to act in four situations: when a statute imposed a duty on the defendant to care for another person, when the defendant held a certain status relationship to another person, when the defendant assumed a contractual duty to care for another person, or when the defendant voluntarily assumed the care of another person and secluded them so that other people could not provide aid.
People v. Carroll 一 A person who acts as the functional equivalent of a parent in a familial or household setting is a person legally responsible for a child’s care.
People v. Beardsley 一 While it is the moral duty of every person to extend to others assistance when in danger, no legal duty is created based on a mere moral obligation.
Pope v. State 一 A person may not be punished as a felon for failing to fulfill a moral obligation.
Regina v. Cunningham 一 In any statutory definition of a crime, malice must be taken not in the sense of wickedness in general but instead as requiring either an actual intention to do the particular kind of harm that in fact was done, or recklessness as to whether such harm should occur.
Regina v. Faulkner 一 “Malice” requires that the act done must be intentional and willful, although the intention and will may perhaps be held to exist in, or be proved by, the fact that the accused knew that the injury would be the probable result of their unlawful act, and yet did the act reckless of such consequences.
State v. Hazelwood 一 Criminal negligence is met when a risk is of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.
Santillanes v. State 一 The purpose of the criminal negligence standard is to deter behavior that is culpable, or that entails greater risk or fault than mere inadvertence or simple negligence.
U.S. v. Giovanetti 一 Criminal knowledge based on willful ignorance cannot be found when a person did not act to avoid learning the truth.
U.S. v. Jewell 一 To impute criminal knowledge to a defendant based on willful ignorance, the defendant must have been ignorant solely because they had a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth.
First-degree murder usually requires a finding of premeditation, while second-degree murder usually involves other intentional homicides. A severe provocation can reduce a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter generally involves a homicide that was reckless or grossly negligent. The felony murder rule makes defendants liable for murder in many instances involving deaths related to certain other felonies.
State v. Guthrie 一 There must be some evidence that the defendant considered and weighed their decision to kill to establish premeditation and deliberation for first-degree murder.
People v. Anderson 一 Evidence sufficient to sustain a finding of premeditation and deliberation falls into three categories: facts about how and what the defendant did prior to the killing that show that the defendant was engaged in activity directed toward the killing, facts from which the jury could reasonably infer a motive to kill the victim, and facts about the nature of the killing from which the jury could infer that the defendant must have intentionally killed according to a preconceived design to take the victim’s life in a particular way.
Girouard v. State 一 Words can constitute adequate provocation to reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter if they are accompanied by conduct indicating a present intention and ability to cause the defendant bodily harm.
U.S. v. Bordeaux 一 If the defendant had enough time between the provocation and the homicide to reflect on their intended course of action, the fact of passion does not reduce the crime from murder to voluntary manslaughter.
Maher v. People 一 A reasonable or adequate provocation can be anything the natural tendency of which would be to produce such a state of mind in ordinary men, and that the jury are satisfied did produce it in the case before them.
State v. Simonovich 一 A defendant was not entitled to a voluntary manslaughter jury instruction when there was no evidence that he had found his wife in the very act of intercourse, or under circumstances clearly indicating that the act had just been completed, or was severely proximate.
Dennis v. State 一 Sexual intimacy or significant sexual contact are terms that cover too great a range of conduct to be acceptable as the basis for an adequate provocation related to adultery.
State v. Elliott 一 A homicide influenced by an extreme emotional disturbance is a killing brought about by a significant mental trauma that caused the defendant to brood for a long period of time and then react violently, seemingly without provocation.
People v. Casassa 一 A determination of whether there was a reasonable explanation or excuse for a particular emotional disturbance should be made by viewing the subjective, internal situation in which the defendant found himself and the external circumstances as he perceived them, and assessing from that standpoint whether the explanation or excuse was reasonable.
Commonwealth v. Welansky 一 To constitute wanton or reckless conduct, grave danger to others must have been apparent, and the defendant must have chosen to run the risk rather than alter their conduct to avoid the act or omission that caused the harm. Even if the specific defendant did not realize the grave danger, they cannot escape the imputation of wanton or reckless conduct if an ordinary person under the same circumstances would have realized it.
People v. Hall 一 The charge of reckless manslaughter requires that the actor consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that death could result from their actions.
State v. Williams 一 Statutes may supersede both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter as defined at common law and provide that manslaughter can be committed even if the death was the proximate result of only ordinary negligence.
Commonwealth v. Malone 一 Malice is evidenced by the intentional doing of an uncalled-for act in callous disregard of its likely harmful effects on others.
U.S. v. Fleming 一 Malice may be established by evidence of conduct that is reckless and wanton and a gross deviation from a reasonable standard of care, such that a jury is warranted in inferring that the defendant was aware of a serious risk of death or serious bodily harm.
Regina v. Serne 一 Any act known to be dangerous to life and likely in itself to cause death, done for the purpose of committing a felony that causes death, should be murder.
People v. Stamp 一 As long as a homicide is a direct causal result of a robbery, the felony-murder rule applies regardless of whether the death was a natural or probable consequence of the robbery. A felon is strictly liable for all killings committed by their accomplices or them in the course of the felony.
People v. Gillis 一 Actions immediately connected with a felony, including attempts to escape or prevent detection, are a continuous part of the commission or perpetration of the felony.
People v. Cabaltero 一 A homicide was committed in the perpetration of a robbery when it was done while the conspirators were attempting to flee from the scene with the fruits of the robbery in their possession.
State v. Canola 一 It is regressive to extend the felony murder rule to lethal acts of third persons not in furtherance of the felonious scheme.
People v. Acosta 一 In a proximate cause inquiry, the analysis is whether the defendant’s conduct was the actual cause of the harm (would it have occurred as it did but for their actions?), whether the result was an intended consequence of the act, whether the defendant’s action was a substantial factor in the harm, and whether the result was highly extraordinary in light of the circumstances.
People v. Arzon 一 Causation between arson and a death was found when it was foreseeable that the victim would be exposed to a life-threatening danger, the fire was an indispensable link in the chain of events that resulted in the death, and the defendant’s act placed the victim in a position in which they were particularly vulnerable.
People v. Kibbe 一 To be a sufficiently direct cause of death, the ultimate harm must have been something that should have been foreseen as being reasonably related to the acts of the defendant.
People v. Campbell 一 When a defendant had no present intention to kill, but merely hoped that the victim would commit suicide, this did not satisfy the intent required for murder.
People v. Kevorkian 一 There is a distinction between active participation in a suicide and involvement in the events leading up to the suicide, such as providing the means.
Stephenson v. State 一 When suicide follows a wound inflicted by the defendant, their act is homicidal if the victim was rendered irresponsible by the wound and as a natural result of it. The wound does not need to be physical.
Commonwealth v. Root 一 When the victim was drag racing with the defendant and recklessly swerved their car into the path of an oncoming truck, this was not forced upon them by any act of the defendant. The victim brought about their own demise.
People v. Kern 一 Defendants who chased and threatened the victim while carrying weapons were liable for the victim’s death when the only reasonable alternative for the victim was to seek safety by crossing a highway, where they were hit by a car and killed.
State v. McFadden 一 The foreseeability requirement, coupled with the requirement of recklessness, prevents the risk of harsh or unjust results in involuntary manslaughter cases.
Commonwealth v. Atencio 一 Wanton or reckless conduct could be found in the concerted action and cooperation of the defendants in helping to bring about the victim’s foolish act.
Many rape cases hinge on force and lack of consent, since the underlying conduct is not inherently criminal. Consent must be voluntary, and a person must have the capacity to consent. Resistance is not necessarily required if the prosecution can show that the defendant used threats that prevented resistance.
State v. Rusk 一 To justify a conviction for rape, the evidence must warrant a conclusion either that the victim resisted but was overcome by force, or that the victim was prevented from resisting by threats to their safety. Lack of consent is established through proof of resistance or proof that the victim failed to resist because of fear.
State v. DiPetrillo 一 When resistance to the defendant’s inappropriate conduct might result in an adverse work-related consequence, this is not an implied threat of force or violence.
State v. Thompson 一 The definition of force cannot be stretched to include intimidation, fear, or apprehension.
Commonwealth v. Mlinarich 一 The non-volitional aspect of rape requires only that the conduct by the actor would prevent resistance by a person of reasonable resolution.
People v. Evans 一 If the defendant uttered words that were taken as a threat by the person who heard them, but were not intended as a threat by the defendant, there is no basis for finding the necessary criminal intent.
Boro v. Superior Court 一 If a deception causes a misunderstanding as to the fact itself (fraud in the factum), there is no consent. If a deception relates merely to a collateral matter (fraud in the inducement), consent induced by fraud is as effective as any other consent.
Commonwealth v. Sherry 一 Any resistance is enough when it demonstrates that the lack of consent is honest and real.
Commonwealth v. Fischer 一 When physical force is alleged in a sexual assault, the defendant generally cannot claim that they reasonably believed that they had consent.
Blackmail or extortion often involves threats to reveal criminal or embarrassing conduct by the target if they do not provide money or another financial benefit to the defendant.
State v. Harrington 一 Blackmail may involve a demand for settlement of a civil action, accompanied by a malicious threat to expose the wrongdoer’s criminal conduct, if made with intent to extort payment, against their will.
People v. Fichtner 一 The law does not authorize the collection of just debts by threatening to accuse the debtor of a crime, even though the complainant is guilty of the crime.
For a conviction based on attempt, the defendant generally must have intended to cause the prohibited result. Tests for the act requirement of attempt include the substantial step, last step, and dangerous proximity tests.
State v. Raines 一 An intent to kill may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon directed at a vital part of the human body.
Smallwood v. State 一 It is permissible to infer that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of their act.
Regina v. Eagleton 一 For a conviction based on attempt, the defendant must have taken the last step that he was able to take on the path of his criminal intent.
People v. Rizzo 一 The law considers those acts only as tending to the commission of a crime that are so near to its accomplishment that in all reasonable probability the crime would have been committed but for timely interference.
U.S. v. Jackson 一 For a conviction of attempt, the defendant must have engaged in conduct that constitutes a substantial step toward commission of the crime. A substantial step must be conduct strongly corroborative of the firmness of the defendant’s criminal intent.
An “accomplice” is a person who facilitates criminal conduct by another person, known as the “principal.” They may be charged with the same crime as the principal. Accomplice liability usually requires an intent to aid or encourage the principal in committing the crime.
Hicks v. U.S. 一 For a conviction based on aiding and abetting, the acts or words of encouragement and abetting must have been used by the defendant with the intention of encouraging and abetting the principal.
State v. Gladstone 一 There is no aiding and abetting unless the defendant associated himself with the venture in some way, participated in it as in something that he wished to accomplish, and sought by his action to make it succeed.
U.S. v. Fountain 一 Aiding and abetting murder is established by proof that the supplier of the murder weapon knew the purpose for which it would be used.
State v. McVay 一 There may be an accessory before the fact in some types of manslaughter.
People v. Russell 一 The fact that defendants set out to injure or kill one another does not preclude a finding that they intentionally aided each other to engage in the mutual combat that caused another person’s death.
People v. Abbott 一 Accessorial liability may attach for criminally negligent homicide if the accessory shared the requisite culpable mental state for the crime and intentionally aided in its commission.
Commonwealth v. Roebuck 一 An accomplice may be held accountable for contributing to conduct to the degree that their culpability equals what is required to support the liability of a principal.
People v. Luparello 一 An accomplice is guilty not only of the offense that they intended to facilitate or encourage, but also of any reasonably foreseeable offense committed by the person whom they aid and abet.
Roy v. U.S. 一 An accessory is liable for a criminal act that in the ordinary course of things was the natural and probable consequence of the crime that they advised or commanded, even if they may not have intended this consequence.
State ex. rel. Attorney General v. Tally, Judge 一 It is enough if the aid merely makes it easier for the principal to accomplish the end intended by the principal and the aider and abetter, even if in all probability the end would have been attained without it.
State v. Hayes 一 When an act essential to the crime was not imputable to a defendant charged with aiding and abetting, their guilt was not made out. The intent and act must combine, and all the elements of the act must exist and be imputable to the defendant.
Vaden v. State 一 A principal does not need to be found guilty or even prosecuted in order to convict the accomplice.
Conspiracy generally involves an agreement to commit a crime in the future. It can be charged separately from the underlying crime. The federal government and certain other jurisdictions impose liability on a conspirator for crimes committed by other conspirators that were meant to further the conspiracy and were reasonably foreseeable.
Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. U.S. 一 To establish an agreement, the government may rely on inferences drawn from the course of conduct of the alleged conspirators.
People v. Lauria 一 Both the element of knowledge of the illegal use of the goods or services and the element of intent to further that use must be present to make the supplier a participant in a criminal conspiracy.
Pinkerton v. U.S. 一 A party to a continuing conspiracy may be responsible for substantive offenses committed by a co-conspirator in furtherance of the conspiracy, even if they do not participate in the substantive offenses or have any knowledge of them.
State v. Bridges 一 A co-conspirator may be liable for the commission of substantive criminal acts that are not within the scope of the conspiracy if they are reasonably foreseeable as the necessary or natural consequences of the conspiracy.
U.S. v. Alvarez 一 Murder could be a reasonably foreseeable consequence of a drug conspiracy when a substantial amount of drugs and money were involved. This meant that the conspirators must have been aware of the likelihood that at least some of them would be carrying weapons and that deadly force would be used if necessary to protect their interests.
Corporations may be charged with crimes committed by their officers and agents. The federal government and many other jurisdictions hold a corporation liable when an agent commits a crime within the scope of their employment with the intent to benefit the corporation.
U.S. v. Hilton Hotels Corp. 一 A corporation is liable under the Sherman Act for the acts of its agents in the scope of their employment, even if these are contrary to general corporate policy and express instructions to the agent.
U.S. v. Automated Medical Laboratories, Inc. 一 An agent’s conduct may be imputed to a corporation in a criminal case if it is motivated at least in part by an intent to benefit the corporation, even if it is actually or potentially detrimental to the corporation.
Commonwealth v. Beneficial Finance Co. 一 A corporation may be convicted for the acts of its agent if the corporation placed the agent in a position in which they had enough authority and responsibility to act for and on behalf of the corporation in handling the corporate business, operation, or project in which they were engaged when they committed the criminal act.
U.S. v. Guidant, LLC 一 Probation can be an appropriate penalty for a corporation when this would serve the public interest in accountability.
U.S. v. Park 一 Corporate officer liability for strict liability offenses requires only a finding that the officer had authority with respect to the conditions that formed the basis of the alleged violations.
U.S. v. MacDonald & Watson Waste Oil Co. 一 When a crime has knowledge as an express element, a mere showing of official responsibility is not an adequate substitute for direct or circumstantial proof of knowledge.
Strict Liability Crimes
A strict liability crime is an offense that does not require proving a mental state element. These are generally limited to violations of regulations that protect public safety and health.
Morissette v. U.S. 一 Mere omission from a criminal statute of any mention of intent is not to be construed as eliminating that element from the crimes defined.
U.S. v. Balint 一 To constitute the offense of selling drugs contrary to Section 2 of the Anti-Narcotic Act, it is not necessary that the seller be aware of their character.
U.S. v. Dotterweich 一 Legislation that dispenses with the requirement of awareness of wrongdoing puts the burden of acting at hazard on a person who is otherwise innocent but standing in responsible relation to a public danger.
Staples v. U.S. 一 Without a clear statement from Congress that mens rea is not required, the public welfare offense rationale should not be applied to interpret any statute defining a felony offense as dispensing with mens rea.
U.S. v. Freed 一 The absence of a specific intent requirement in an essentially regulatory statute in the area of public safety does not violate due process.
U.S. v. X-Citement Video, Inc. 一 In a statute prohibiting the distribution of child pornography, the term “knowingly” extends both to the sexually explicit nature of the material and the age of the performers.
Addiction, Alcoholism, and Status Offenses
Drug addiction and chronic alcoholism generally are not defenses to crimes such as drug possession or public intoxication. However, a statute cannot criminalize the status of being a drug addict or an alcoholic. Other laws based on status also are generally unconstitutional.
Robinson v. California 一 A state law that imprisons a drug addict as a criminal, even though he has never touched any drug in the state or been guilty of irregular behavior there, inflicts a cruel and unusual punishment and thus is unconstitutional.
Jones v. City of Los Angeles 一 The Eighth Amendment prohibits enforcement against homeless individuals of a law that criminalizes sitting, lying, or sleeping on public streets and sidewalks, since they are engaging in these actions involuntarily due to the unavailability of shelter.
Powell v. Texas 一 Chronic alcoholics do not suffer from such an irresistible compulsion to drink and get drunk in public that they are utterly unable to control their performance of these acts and cannot be deterred from public intoxication.
State ex rel. Harper v. Zegeer 一 Criminally punishing alcoholics for being publicly intoxicated violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under the West Virginia Constitution.
U.S. v. Moore 一 Drug addiction is not a defense to a charge of drug possession.
Self-Defense and Defense of Property
Self-defense allows a person to use deadly force based on a reasonable belief that they faced an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. Jurisdictions have taken varying approaches to the duty to retreat before using deadly force. There is no duty to retreat before using non-deadly force. Many jurisdictions do not allow deadly force to protect property, unless a person illegally entered a home, but non-deadly force to protect property is widely accepted.
U.S. v. Peterson 一 The right to kill or maim in self-defense requires a threat, actual or apparent, of the use of deadly force. The threat must have been unlawful and immediate. The defender must have believed that they were in imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm and that their response was necessary to save them. These beliefs must have been honest and objectively reasonable.
People v. Goetz 一 A determination of reasonableness must be based on the circumstances facing a defendant or their situation. These may include the physical movements of the potential assailant, any relevant knowledge that the defendant had about that person, the physical attributes of everyone involved, and any prior experiences of the defendant that could provide a reasonable basis for a belief that the other person intended to injure or rob them or that the use of deadly force was necessary.
State v. Kelly 一 Expert testimony may be admissible in a case involving battered woman’s syndrome and self-defense to show that the defendant honestly believed that they were in imminent danger of death and that their belief that they faced an imminent danger of death or serious injury was reasonable.
State v. Norman 一 A self-defense jury instruction is not appropriate in a case involving battered woman’s syndrome unless evidence is introduced that tends to show that at the time of the killing, the defendant reasonably believed that she faced circumstances that necessitated killing her husband to save her from imminent death or great bodily harm.
State v. Abbott 一 Deadly force is not justifiable if the actor knows that they can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety by retreating.
Allen v. State 一 If a person by provocative behavior initiates a confrontation, even with no intention of killing the other person, they lose the right of self-defense.
People v. Ceballos 一 Bodily force cannot be justified to prevent all burglaries of a dwelling, including those in which nobody is, or is reasonably believed to be, on the premises except the would-be burglar.
Sydnor v. State 一 A victim of a robbery who disarms the robber and is no longer in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury may not typically use deadly force in pursuit of the robber or to recover the stolen property.
Necessity and Duress Defenses
Necessity involves choosing the lesser of two evils, while duress involves committing a crime due to coercion by a threat or use of unlawful force that could not reasonably have been resisted. Traditionally, neither necessity nor duress is a defense to homicide.
People v. Unger 一 The absence of one of the Lovercamp preconditions does not alone disprove the claim of necessity and should not automatically preclude an instruction on the defense.
Commonwealth v. Leno 一 The necessity defense is not available when the legislature has precluded the defense by a clear and deliberate choice regarding the values at issue.
U.S. v. Schoon 一 The necessity defense is inapplicable to cases involving indirect civil disobedience.
State v. Toscano 一 Duress is a defense to a crime other than murder if the defendant engaged in conduct because they were coerced to do so by the use of, or threat to use, unlawful force against their person or the person of someone else, which a person of reasonable firmness in their situation would have been unable to resist.
Mistake of Fact or Law Defenses
A mistaken belief about a fact may defeat a criminal charge if the mistake was reasonable. Even if the mistake was not reasonable, this defense may defeat a charge that involves a specific intent element. A mistake of law defense is much more limited but sometimes may negate the mental state element of a crime.
State v. Benniefield 一 For a conviction of drug possession in a school zone, the prosecution does not need to prove that the defendant knew that he was in a school zone.
Regina v. Prince 一 It is no defense to a charge of abducting an unmarried girl under the age of 16 that the defendant believed, reasonably and in good faith, that the girl was older than 16.
People v. Olsen 一 A good-faith, reasonable mistake as to the victim’s age is not a defense to a lewd or lascivious conduct charge with a child under 14 years of age.
B (A Minor) v. Director of Public Prosecutions 一 A defendant is entitled to be acquitted of the offense of inciting a child under 14 to commit an act of gross indecency if they hold or may hold an honest belief that the child was 14 or older.
Garnett v. State 一 There is no reasonable mistake of age defense to statutory rape, since this is traditionally viewed as a strict liability crime designed to protect young persons from the dangers of sexual exploitation, loss of chastity, physical injury, and pregnancy.
People v. Marrero 一 When the government is not responsible for the error, mistake of law should not be available as an excuse.
People v. Weiss 一 Willful intent to seize a person without authority of law is an essential issue in a kidnapping case, and there is no intent to act without authority of law if the defendants believed in good faith that they were acting within the law.
Cheek v. U.S. 一 Statutory willfulness, which protects the average citizen from prosecution for innocent mistakes due to the complexity of the tax laws, is the voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty. A good-faith misunderstanding of the law or a good-faith belief that one is not violating the law negates willfulness, whether or not the claimed belief or misunderstanding is objectively reasonable.
Liparota v. U.S. 一 Without any indication of a contrary purpose in the statute’s language or legislative history, the government in a prosecution for food stamp fraud must prove that the defendant knew that their acquisition or possession of food stamps was in a manner unauthorized by statute or regulations.
U.S. v. Int’l Minerals & Chem. Corp. 一 When dangerous products are involved, the probability of regulation is so great that anyone who is aware that they are in possession of them or dealing with them must be presumed to be aware of the regulation.
U.S. v. Ansaldi 一 Knowledge of the law prohibiting drug manufacturing and distribution, or an intent to violate the law, is simply not an element of this offense.
U.S. v. Overholt 一 As the federal government has sought to protect the environment by imposing more and more restrictions on people handling dangerous chemicals, Congress has not intended to reduce the burden on such persons to inform themselves of what the law requires.
U.S. v. Albertini 一 A person whose conduct has been tried in court and vindicated on appeal can rely on the court’s decision in repeating the same conduct after receiving the appellate judgment, when the government has either filed a petition for certiorari or still has time to file such a petition, and the Supreme Court has not acted to grant or deny the petition.
Hopkins v. State 一 The advice of counsel, even though followed in good faith, furnishes no excuse to a person for violating the law and cannot be relied upon as a defense in a criminal action.
Lambert v. California 一 A municipal ordinance that makes it an offense for a person who has been convicted of a crime punishable in that state as a felony to remain in that city for more than five days without registering violates due process when it is applied to a person who has no actual knowledge of their duty to register, and when no showing is made of the probability of such knowledge.
U.S. v. Wilson 一 Unless the text of the statute at issue dictates a different result, establishing a knowing violation of the statute only requires proof of knowledge by the defendant of the facts that constitute the offense.
A defendant cannot be convicted of a crime if they were unable to understand what they were doing or understand that their actions were wrongful, due to a mental illness. However, a finding of insanity may lead to indefinite civil commitment.
M’Naghten’s Case 一 To establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that at the time of committing the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act that they were doing, or as not to know that what they were doing was wrong.
U.S. v. Lyons 一 Evidence of mere narcotics addiction, standing alone and without other physiological or psychological involvement, raises no issue of such a mental defect or disease as can serve as a basis for the insanity defense.
Jones v. U.S. 一 When a criminal defendant establishes by a preponderance of the evidence that they are not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity, the Constitution permits the government to confine the defendant to a mental institution until such time as they have regained their sanity or are no longer a danger to society or them.
Prosecutors and Plea Bargains
A prosecutor should pursue charges only if they reasonably believe that they can prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Most criminal cases end with plea bargains. A guilty plea must be voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, but a prosecutor can use threats or inducements to the extent that their tactics are supported by the evidence in the case.
Inmates of Attica Correctional Facility v. Rockefeller 一 Federal courts have traditionally refrained from overturning, at the instance of a private person, discretionary decisions of federal prosecuting authorities not to prosecute persons regarding whom a complaint of criminal conduct is made.
U.S. v. Armstrong 一 For a defendant to be entitled to discovery on a claim that they were singled out for prosecution on the basis of their race, they must make a threshold showing that the government declined to prosecute similarly situated suspects of other races.
Santobello v. New York 一 When the prosecution failed to keep a commitment concerning the sentence recommendation on a guilty plea, the interests of justice and proper recognition of the prosecution’s duties in relation to promises made in connection with plea bargaining require that the judgment be vacated and that the case be remanded to the state courts for further consideration as to whether the circumstances require only that there be specific performance of the agreement on the plea, or whether the defendant should be allowed to withdraw the plea.
Padilla v. Kentucky 一 A criminal defense attorney must inform a non-citizen client whether their plea carries a risk of deportation.
Brady v. U.S. 一 A plea of guilty is not invalid merely because it was entered to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. A guilty plea meets the standard of voluntariness when it is made by a defendant fully aware of the direct consequences of the plea.
Bordenkircher v. Hayes 一 Although punishing a person because they have done what the law allows violates due process, there is no such element of punishment in the “give-and-take” of plea bargaining, as long as the accused is free to accept or reject the prosecutor’s offer. The reality that the prosecutor’s interest at the bargaining table is to persuade the defendant to forgo their right to plead not guilty is constitutionally legitimate.
Jury Trials in Criminal Cases
The Supreme Court has described the range of cases that entitle a defendant to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment and outlined certain requirements for the composition of a jury. The power of jury nullification may allow a jury to acquit a defendant despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. However, this power is subject to strict limitations.
Duncan v. Louisiana 一 The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right to a jury trial in all criminal cases that would come within the Sixth Amendment guarantee of trial by jury if they were tried in a federal court. Crimes carrying possible penalties up to six months do not require a jury trial if they otherwise qualify as petty offenses.
Taylor v. Louisiana 一 The requirement that a jury be selected from a representative cross-section of the community is fundamental to the jury trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. This requirement is violated by the systematic exclusion of women from jury panels.
Batson v. Kentucky 一 While a defendant has no right to a jury composed in whole or in part of persons of their own race, the Equal Protection Clause guarantees the defendant that the prosecution will not exclude members of their race from the jury venire on account of race, or on the false assumption that members of their race as a group are not qualified to serve as jurors.
U.S. v. Dougherty 一 The fact that there is widespread existence of the jury’s prerogative of lenity, as well as approval of its existence as a necessary counter to case-hardened judges and arbitrary prosecutors, does not establish as an imperative that the jury must be informed by the judge of that power.
People v. Fernandez 一 A judge did not err in refusing to tell the jury that if it had found unanimously that the defendant was guilty of the greater offense, it could nonetheless return a verdict of guilty of the lesser offense instead.
People v. Engelman 一 A jury instruction may inform jurors at the outset of jury deliberations that jurors must immediately advise the court if any juror refuses to deliberate or expresses an intention to disregard the law or decide the case based on penalty or punishment, or any other improper basis.
U.S. v. Thomas 一 A judge faced with anything but unambiguous evidence that a juror refuses to apply the law as instructed need go no further in their investigation of the alleged nullification. In these circumstances, the juror is not subject to dismissal on the basis of their alleged refusal to follow the court’s instructions.
Merced v. McGrath 一 A prospective juror may be excused if the juror’s voir dire responses convey a definite impression that their views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties as a juror in accordance with their instructions and their oath.
Sentencing for Crimes
The main purposes of criminal punishment are retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. The death penalty is not unconstitutional per se, unless it is applied in an arbitrary, capricious, or discriminatory way. However, it is generally limited to homicide, and the Eighth Amendment forbids any punishment that is grossly disproportionate to the crime.
U.S. v. Jackson 一 The selection of a sentence within the statutory range is essentially free of appellate review.
U.S. v. Gementera 一 The Sentencing Reform Act affords district courts broad discretion in fashioning appropriate conditions of supervised release, while mandating that such conditions serve legitimate objectives.
Williams v. New York 一 In considering the sentence to be imposed after a conviction, the sentencing judge is not restricted to information received in open court.
U.S. v. Deegan 一 When a sentence is within the advisory guideline range, it typically receives a presumption of reasonableness.
Harmelin v. Michigan 一 The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence but instead forbids only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime.
Ewing v. California 一 Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from choosing to incapacitate criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime.
Graham v. Florida 一 The Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime.
Miller v. Alabama 一 The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.
Gregg v. Georgia 一 The punishment of death for the crime of murder does not, under all circumstances, violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Atkins v. Virginia 一 Executions of mentally retarded criminals are cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
Roper v. Simmons 一 The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.
Kennedy v. Louisiana 一 The Eighth Amendment is defined by the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. This principle requires that resort to capital punishment be restrained, limited in its instances of application, and reserved for the worst of crimes, those that, in the case of crimes against individuals, take the victim’s life.
This outline has been compiled by the Justia team for solely educational purposes and should not be treated as an independent source of legal authority or a summary of the current state of the law. Students should use this outline as a supplement rather than a substitute for course-specific outlines.