Hall v. Florida

Thanks for joining us on this special, Veteran’s Day edition of the Criminal Law Review blog!  One of our talented staff editors, Jennifer Hudson, wrote this piece regarding the Supreme Court’s take on the standards for punishment of mentally disabled individuals.

Hall v. Florida

Hall was sentenced to death by a Florida jury after he and an accomplice kidnapped, raped, beat, and murdered a pregnant 21-year-old newlywed and killed a sheriff’s deputy attempting to arrest them outside a convenience store they were planning to rob.  Florida did not consider intellectual disability a statutorily mitigating factor at the time.  In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in Hitchcock that capital defendants must be allowed to present non-statutory mitigating evidence.  Hall was resentenced and again received the death penalty after presenting substantial evidence of his intellectual disability in the form of lay and expert testimony.  Although the sentencing court found substantial evidence to support the finding that Hall had been mentally retarded his entire life, it stated mental retardation cannot be used to excuse moral culpability, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed Hall’s sentence.

In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins held execution of mentally retarded persons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Hall filed a motion in 2004 that he cannot be executed by Florida based on his intellectual disability.  More than five years later, Florida held a hearing where Hall presented evidence of his disability, including an IQ score of 71 (he had received nine IQ evaluations, with two IQ scores below 70, but the court excluded the scores for evidentiary reasons).  However, Florida law requires an IQ test score of 70 or below before a defendant can present any additional evidence of intellectual disability, thus Hall was found not to meet the threshold requirement.  The Florida Supreme Court held the 70-point threshold was constitutional and denied Hall’s appeal. Hall applied for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the Florida statute.

The issue being decided by the Supreme Court is whether a Florida statute violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment when it precludes presentation of evidence regarding a capital defendant’s intellectual disability if the defendant’s IQ score is above 70.

The nation’s highest court found that the Florida statute denying a capital defendant’s presentation of evidence regarding an intellectual disability based on an IQ score of 70 or more is unconstitutional because it creates an unacceptable risk that people with intellectual disabilities will be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (5-4 decision; Justice Alito dissenting, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Thomas).

Because Atkins did not specify how states should determine whether a capital defendant has an intellectual disability, the Supreme Court began by looking at how intellectual disability is defined by the medical community and if the Florida statute is consistent with that definition.  While the Court found the statute on its face is consistent with the definition of intellectual disability used by medical professionals, it found that it has been applied too narrowly by the Florida Supreme Court.  By holding a capital defendant with an IQ score of 70 or more is barred from presenting additional evidence of an intellectual disability, the Court found Florida law disregards established medical practices by failing to allow the consideration of other evidence of a disability (evidence of past performance, environment, and upbringing) and failing to recognize that an IQ score should be read as range, rather than a fixed number.

The Supreme Court then examined how other states determine whether a defendant has an intellectual disability to see whether the Florida statute comports with society’s views of humane treatment.  It found that 41 states have rejected a strict 70-point cutoff, recognizing the inherent margin of error in IQ testing, with only two other states mandating a strict 70-point cutoff (Virginia and Kentucky) as a threshold issue.  The Court found every other state (other than Virginia) whose law has been interpreted by its courts has sided contrary to Florida.

The Court then looked Atkins, which, although it left the issue of how the determine an intellectual disability to the states, mentioned the error inherent in IQ testing.  The Court found that states’ ability to determine what constitutes an intellectual disability does not give them “unfettered discretion” to define the scope of the protection afforded by the Eighth Amendment because they are bound to adhere to the clinical definitions of intellectual disability.

Finally, the Supreme Court ruled the Florida statute was unconstitutional, as interpreted by the Florida courts, because of the unacceptable risk that intellectually disabled defendants would be executed by denying any defendant with an IQ score above 70 the ability to present additional evidence of an intellectual disability.  The Court mentioned that not one medical professional supported the 70-point cutoff.  Of particular interest was the fact that IQ scores are approximations that are not intended to be final, infallible assessments of intellectual ability.  The Court found a state that refuses to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in IQ tests runs the risk of executing a person with an intellectual disability.  The Court ruled states must allow defendants whose IQ score falls within the tests margin of error to present additional evidence of intellectual disability.  It held the Florida statute violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, reversed the Florida Supreme Court, and remanded the case.

How did the courts come up with the 70 IQ cutoff in the first place? Could a black-letter rule be made to prevent intellectually challenged individuals from falling through the “cracks” of our legal system?  Please tell us what you think by commenting below.

US v. $85,688.00

The below submission comes from one of our dedicated staff editors, Jackson Gardner.  Enjoy!

United States v. $85,688.00 in U.S. Currency

2014 WL 4237377 (10th Cir. Aug. 28, 2014)


On September 15, 2008, Trooper Chamberlin Neff (“Neff”), who was parked in the median on Interstate 80 to monitor traffic, saw Andrew Wiley’s (“Wiley”) 2002 Toyota Tundra truck drive past. United States v. $85,688.00 in U.S. Currency, 2014 WL 4237377, at *8 (10th Cir. Aug. 28, 2014).  As the truck drove by, Neff ran Wiley’s Missouri license plate to check his registration. Id. Neff’s search of the license plate came back as “not on file.” Id. After Neff’s dispatch reached the same result, Neff stopped Wiley’s truck to investigate the registration. Id.

Once Wiley pulled his truck to the side of the interstate, Neff walked to the passenger’s side window without inspecting the truck’s license plate, which was clearly brand new and bore the markings of a properly registered vehicle. Id. at *9.  When Neff arrived at the passenger’s side window, Wiley rolled down the window three or four inches and Neff asked Wiley if he could open the passenger’s side door, and Wiley refused. Id. Neff then asked Wiley for a driver’s license and ultimately asked Wiley to exit the truck and to bring his license and registration over to Neff’s patrol car. Id.

After Wiley accompanied Neff to the patrol car, Neff told Wiley that he’d stopped him because the truck’s registration was not on file. Id. Wiley explained that he had just bought the car and provided Neff with the “original motor vehicle title receipt” for the truck along with his driver’s license and insurance card. Id.

While the two men waited for the police dispatch to run Wiley’s information, Neff proceeded to ask Neff a slew of questions including questions about where Wiley was going and for what reason. Id. Wiley responded that he was driving to California to see family, via a scenic route because he was recently laid off. Id. at *6.  After about seven minutes passed, the police dispatch confirmed that they had no additional information on the  registration records, but informed Neff that Wiley’s record showed an arrest for marijuana possession in 2001. Id. at *9.

In response to the information about Wiley’s prior arrest, Neff asked dispatch to contact Wiley’s family and friends in California while he continued questioning Wiley about the prior marijuana conviction. Id. at *10.  Dispatch eventually contacted Neff and informed him that she was unable to contact Wiley’s family. Id. Neff then walked over to the truck and confirmed that the VIN number on the receipt matched the VIN number on the truck’s dashboard and inside the truck’s doorframe. Id. While checking the doorframe, Neff noticed a can of Febreze in the truck before returning the title receipt to Wiley for the second time. Id.

While Wiley was walking back to his truck, Neff stopped him yet again and asked if he could ask more questions. Id. After Wiley declined the request Neff persisted, stating that he believed that criminal activity was afoot and asked Wiley if he could search the truck and then asked for consent to walk a drug dog around the truck, both of which Wiley refused. Id. Neff proceeded anyways, stating that he had reasonable suspicion. Id. The drug dog search uncovered $85,668 in cash along with a small amount of marijuana. Id.

            Consequently, the government filed a foreiture action against the cash found during Neff’s search. Id. Wiley claimed ownership of the cash and moved to suppress all evidence obtained from the search. Id. Wiley’s motion to suppress was denied by the district court, which found that the “not on file” registration justified the initial stop. Id. Additionally, the court found that Neff had reasonable suspicion of drug activity to deploy the drug dog and that the drug dog’s alert gave rise to probable cause to search the truck. Id. Wiley appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals in the Tenth District. Id.




            The issue entertained by the court was whether or not Neff had reasonable suspicion to investigate the validity of Wiley’s registration.  Stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Id. at *11 (citing to Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979)).   Further, “certain seizures are justifiable under the Fourth Amendment if there is articulable suspicion that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime.” Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 498 (1983).  However, “when, as here, an officer merely suspects a traffic violation, he may not continue to detain the driver for these purposes after reasonable suspicion has dissipated.” $85,688 in US Currency, 2014 WL 4237377 at *12.

Here, all three Judges agreed that Neff had reasonable suspicion to stop Wiley’s truck because of the “not on file” response to his registration inquiry.  None of the Judges agreed on when this reasonable suspicion dissipated. Judge Phillips contended that Neff had reasonable suspicion as to the validity of Wiley’s registration dissipated when Neff saw, or should have seen, Wiley’s brand new license plate because Neff should have seen that the license plate bore all the markings of a properly registered vehicle. Id. at *12.  Additionally, Judge Phillips argued that Neff’s reasonable suspicion that the car was stolen dissipated once Wiley presented Neff with his title receipt. Id.

On the contrary, Judge Ebel contends that Neff had reasonable suspicion to detain and question Wiley up until the point when Neff returned Wiley’s driver’s license and title receipt and told him that he could leave. Id. at *1.  Judge Ebel acknowledged the holding in Florida v. Royer, which stated that “the investigative methods employed should be the least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the officer’s suspicion in a short period of time.” 460 U.S. at 500.  However, Judge Ebel explained that the Royer court was speaking to the length of a stop, not whether or not the least intrusive means were employed. $85,688 in US Currency, 2014 WL 4237377 at *2.  Thus, Judge Ebel concluded that Neff’s decision to question Wiley was within his discretion, but Judge Ebel also concluded that Neff’s reasonable suspicion dissipated once he verified the VIN numbers, examined the title receipt, and returned all of the documents to Wiley. Id. at *3.

Thus, as the majority held that Neff’s reasonable suspicion as to Wiley’s registration was warranted.  More importantly, they held that Neff’s reasonable suspicion dissipated long before he developed a new suspicion that Wiley was involved in a drug crime.  As a result, the court reversed the district court, holding that Neff’s search of Wiley’s truck was a violation of the Fourth Amendment because Neff’s articulable reasonable suspicion had dissipated before the search occurred.

Chief Judge Briscoe delivered an in-depth dissent arguing that the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress ought to be upheld.  Chief Judge Briscoe contended that not only did Neff have reasonable suspicion to stop Wiley, but Neff also had grounds for a ‘new’ reasonable suspicion that Wiley was involved in a drug crime.  Chief Judge Briscoe grounded his opinion in several facts that he believed to give rise to reasonable suspicion.  First, Chief Judge Briscoe argued that Wiley’s travel plans, namely driving on Interstate 80 to get to California, were a factor in favor of reasonable suspicion.  Second, Chief Judge Briscoe believed that Wiley’s criminal history, and his failure to be forthcoming about his marijuana conviction, weighed in favor of reasonable suspicion.  Lastly, Chief Judge Briscoe contended that the combination between Wiley only opening his passenger-side window a few inches and the can of Frebreze gave rise to reasonable suspicion because drug traffickers commonly use aerosol scents to cover up the smell of contraband.  Through a totality of the circumstances test, Chief Judge Briscoe came to the conclusion that Neff had reasonable suspicion throughout the entire interaction with Wiley.



The majority  were unconvinced by Chief Judge Briscoes’ arguments.  They held that Wiley’s travel plans were not so unusual to give rise to reasonable suspicion.  Likewise, the majority thought that using criminal history as grounds for reasonable suspicion was a dangerous and slippery slope with respect to future cases.  Next, the majority found it to be completely reasonable for Wiley to have a can of air freshener in his car for a long road trip, noting that the lack of any air freshener smell actually cut against the finding of reasonable suspicion.  Finally, the majority argued that Wiley was within his rights to refuse to open his window more than a few inches and to use this as a factor supporting reasonable suspicion of criminal activity would, in itself, be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Ultimately, the court held that Wiley’s motion to suppress the evidence found in the search was wrongfully denied by the district court, and thus this case was reversed and remanded.

Do you believe this case was decided correctly? Please share your comments and thoughts below.