Justia Louisiana Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Defendant Kenneth Gleason was convicted for the first-degree murder of Donald Smart, for which he received a life sentence. After giving notice he intended to appeal, Gleason died in prison. The court of appeal dismissed the appeal, vacated the conviction, and remanded the matter to the trial court with instructions to dismiss the indictment. The State appealed, arguing the Louisiana Supreme Court should overrule precedent adopting the abatement ab initio doctrine. To this, the Supreme Court concurred, finding that “[t]o abate a conviction would be as to say there has been no crime and there is no victim. Accordingly, we abandon the doctrine and hold that when a defendant dies during the pendency of an appeal, the appeal shall be dismissed and the trial court shall enter a notation in the record that the conviction removed the defendant’s presumption of innocence but was neither affirmed nor reversed on appeal due to the defendant’s death.” View "Louisiana v. Gleason" on Justia Law

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Defendant Brian Clarke was charged with one count of home invasion. He provided notice of his intent to present the affirmative defense of voluntary intoxication at trial. In response, the State filed a motion in limine seeking to prohibit defendant from asserting an intoxication defense because, in the State’s view, home invasion was a general intent crime. The trial court granted the State’s motion. The court of appeal granted defendant’s writ application, and found that home invasion was a specific intent crime to which defendant was entitled to present voluntary intoxication as an affirmative defense. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted defendant’s application to determine whether the court of appeal correctly found that voluntary intoxication was an affirmative defense to the crime of home invasion. Based on the clear language of the statute that defines the crime of home invasion, La.R.S. 14:62.8, the Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeal that specific intent was a necessary element of the offense. "Therefore, whether voluntary intoxication is sufficient to preclude specific intent in this case is a question to be resolved by the trier of fact." Accordingly, the trial court erred in granting the State’s motion in limine to prohibit defendant from asserting voluntary intoxication as an affirmative defense. View "Louisiana v. Clarke" on Justia Law

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Defendant Ladarious Brown was arrested for several offenses stemming from a domestic incident, but he was ultimately charged with two crimes: illegal use of weapons; and aggravated flight from an officer. A jury found defendant guilty as charged. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted defendant’s application to determine whether the court of appeal correctly applied Louisiana v. Mayeux, 498 So.2d 701 (La. 1986) in finding that defendant’s conviction for attempted aggravated flight from an officer was a nullity and therefore jeopardy had not attached. The Supreme Court found that it previously erred in its double jeopardy analysis in Mayeux, and the court of appeal erred here in deciding whether jeopardy had attached. Nevertheless, the court of appeal correctly vacated the conviction for attempted aggravated flight from an officer as a non-crime that was not responsive to the charge of aggravated flight from an officer. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal’s decision insofar as it found jeopardy had not attached, but otherwise affirmed the decision vacating the conviction for attempted aggravated flight from an officer. View "Louisiana v. Brown" on Justia Law

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This case arose from a 2016 road rage incident that led to the shooting death of Joseph McKnight. A grand jury indicted the defendant Ronald Gasser for second degree murder. The case proceeded to a trial before a twelve-person jury in January, 2018. The jury was presented with a verdict sheet listing the crime of second degree murder and three responsive verdicts: guilty of manslaughter, guilty of negligent homicide and not guilty. By a vote of ten to two, the jury convicted defendant of the lesser included offense of manslaughter and defendant was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment at hard labor. While defendant's appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana, 140 S.Ct. 1390 (2020), holding that non-unanimous jury verdicts in state felony cases were unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court then granted defendant’s writ application and remanded the case to the Court of Appeal for patent review based on Ramos. Thereafter, and in accordance with Ramos, the Fifth Circuit found that defendant’s non-unanimous verdict entitled him to a new trial, vacated defendant’s conviction and sentence, and remanded the case to the trial court. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari to review when a non-unanimous jury finds a defendant guilty of a lesser, statutorily responsive verdict to a charged offense, valid at the time of its rendering, if the conviction was later set aside as unconstitutional, did double jeopardy preclude the State from retrying the defendant on the originally charged offense? The lower courts found that it did, and the Supreme Court agreed: double jeopardy barred the reinstatement and retrial of a defendant on a higher charge when he was lawfully convicted of a lesser included offense, even though the conviction was later vacated. The Court further agreed with the lower courts that, in this case, defendant’s conviction of a lesser included offense operated as an implied acquittal of the higher charge. View "Louisiana v. Gasser" on Justia Law

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Defendant Chrystal Clues-Alexander was indicted for the second degree murder of her husband. She made two motions to declare former La.C.Cr.P. art. 782(A) unconstitutional, and require a unanimous jury at trial, which the district court denied. In 2018, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She pleaded guilty unconditionally and did not reserve any issues for review pursuant to Louisiana v. Crosby, 338 So.2d 584 (La. 1976). The Louisiana Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the court of appeal erred in ruling that defendant was entitled to withdraw her guilty plea based on Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___, 140 S.Ct. 583, 206 L.Ed.2d 583 (2020). At the time defendant pleaded guilty, the district court advised her that she had the right to a jury trial. After she pleaded guilty, the United States Supreme Court announced a new rule of criminal procedure in Ramos v. Louisiana, holding that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant of a serious offense. The Louisiana Court found that this jurisprudential development subsequent to defendant’s knowing and voluntary plea did not render her plea involuntary or unknowing. Accordingly, the Court reversed the ruling of the court of appeal and reinstated the district court’s ruling, which denied defendant’s motion to withdraw her guilty plea. View "Louisiana v. Clues-Alexander" on Justia Law

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Defendant Mark Spell was the pastor of a church in Central, Louisiana. On March 31, 2020, he was issued six misdemeanor citations for violating two executive orders issued by Louisiana Governor Edwards in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Louisiana Supreme Court found certain provisions of those two executive orders, as applied to defendant, violated his fundamental right to exercise religion, did not survive strict scrutiny, and were thus unconstitutional. View "Louisiana v. Spell" on Justia Law

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The Louisiana Supreme Court granted the State’s application to determine whether the State carried its heavy burden of showing that the two-year limitations period to commence trial on defendant Joseph Schmidt's non-capital felony charges was interrupted by defendant’s failure “to appear at any proceeding pursuant to actual notice, proof of which appears in the record.” After careful review, the Supreme Court found the State failed to carry its burden of showing that the statute of limitations was tolled. Specifically, the Court found no proof in the record that defendant failed to appear at a proceeding in 1995 pursuant to actual notice. Accordingly, the Court agreed with the court of appeal and the district court that this non-capital felony prosecution had to be quashed because the State failed to timely commence the trial. View "Louisiana v. Schmidt" on Justia Law

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Defendant David Brown was indicted by grand jury for the first degree murder of Captain David Knapps, a correctional officer at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Defendant was tried by jury which found defendant guilty as charged and, at the conclusion of the penalty phase of the trial, recommended a sentence of death. Defendant was sentenced accordingly. Defendant raises 23 assignments of error on automatic appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, contending his conviction and sentence should have been reversed. After a thorough review of the law and the evidence, the Supreme Court found no merit in any of the contentions defendant raised in his appeal. Therefore, defendant’s conviction and sentence were affirmed. View "Lousiana v. Brown" on Justia Law

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In 2015, applicant Elizabeth Trahan was involved in a tragic automobile accident, which resulted in a fatality. Applicant and her boyfriend were in a Dodge Charger, which was traveling north at 72 mph in the left lane on Highway 167 between Maurice and Abbeville, Lousiana. Motorcyclist Carl Johnson passed them on the right, switched into the left lane in front of them, and then braked, apparently intending to turn left across the highway median. Skid marks showed that the driver of the Charger attempted to stop. The Charger collided with the motorcycle and Johnson was killed. A jury found applicant guilty of vehicular homicide, for which the trial court sentenced her to 15 years imprisonment at hard labor, with all but six years of the sentence suspended, and with three years of active supervised probation. Regarding whether the State proved that applicant’s impairment was a contributing factor, the court of appeal acknowledged that metabolites detected in applicant’s blood and urine, standing alone, did “not allow the jury to assume the defendant was impaired or that the presence of those substances was a contributing factor in the accident.” However, the court of appeal found that the jury could consider additional circumstances, such as the fact that applicant exceeded the speed limit and was unable to stop in time to avoid the accident, to conclude that drugs impaired her driving and thus contributed to the accident. The dissent observed that expert testimony in conjunction with evidence of behavioral manifestations of intoxication was ordinarily used to establish that a driver was impaired, and no such evidence was offered by the State in this case. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals' dissent that a jury could not reasonably conclude from the evidence presented at trial that applicant was impaired or that her impairment was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, and therefore the conviction could not survive appellate review under the due process standard of Jackson v. Virginia. Because a rational trier of fact could not reasonably conclude, without speculating, that applicant’s ingestion of controlled dangerous substances was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, the Supreme Court concluded applicant was entitled to an acquittal under Hudson v. Louisiana, 450 U.S. 40(1981). Accordingly, the Court reversed the ruling of the court of appeal, vacated applicant’s conviction and sentence for vehicular homicide, and entered a judgment of acquittal. View "Louisiana v. Trahan" on Justia Law

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Respondent Noe Aguliar-Benitez was convicted by jury of attempted aggravated rape and sexual battery. The evidence presented at trial established that respondent, while a guest in the home, sexually abused an 8-year-old child who resided there. As part of that abuse, he raped or attempted to rape her. Respondent claimed the offenses occurred during a single incident; the victim described repeated abuse. The trial court sentenced respondent to serve the statutory maximum sentences of 50 years imprisonment at hard labor for attempted aggravated rape and 99 years imprisonment at hard labor for sexual battery, to run concurrently and without parole eligibility. The court of appeal vacated the sentences, and remanded to the trial court with instructions to rule on respondent’s motion for new trial before resentencing. On remand, the trial court denied respondent’s motion for new trial and resentenced him to the same terms of imprisonment. The court of appeal affirmed the convictions but vacated the sentences as unconstitutionally excessive, and remanded for resentencing a second time. On remand, the trial court resentenced respondent to serve 40 years imprisonment at hard labor for attempted aggravated rape and 75 years imprisonment at hard labor for sexual battery, to run concurrently and without parole eligibility. The court of appeal affirmed the 40-year sentence for attempted aggravated rape, but vacated the 75-year sentence for sexual battery as unconstitutionally excessive, and remanded for resentencing a third time. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted the State’s application to determine whether the trial court, after the second remand, abused its discretion in imposing a sentence for sexual battery that, while it was 24 years less than the sentence originally imposed, was still 20 years greater than the maximum recommended by the court of appeal. After reviewing the record, the Supreme Court found the trial court did not abuse its broad discretion in sentencing following the second remand. Furthermore, the Court respectfully disagreed with the court of appeal’s emphasis on whether the trial court articulated a sufficient justification for departing from the court of appeal’s recommended sentencing range. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal in part and reinstated the 75-year sentence imposed by the trial court for sexual battery. View "Louisiana v. Aguliar-Benitez" on Justia Law