Wine, Dogs and Drugs on High Court Agenda

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court justices, a solemn and sober lot, will spend time this fall talking about wine, beef, marijuana and dogs -- all part of their wide-ranging duty to police the limits of the government’s power.

They will also consider whether young murderers can be put to death for their crimes.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 7, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Capital punishment -- An article in Sunday’s Section A about cases before the Supreme Court said that since 1990, prisoners convicted of murder while they were juveniles had been executed in Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia. Missouri and Georgia also executed such prisoners in 1993.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Supreme Court -- An Oct. 3 article in Section A about cases coming before the Supreme Court this fall misspelled the name of a petitioner in Blakely vs. Washington, a case about prison sentencing guidelines, as Blakeley.

But when the court’s term officially opens Monday, the first order of business will be to answer a question raised at the end of the last term: Is the federal sentencing system, which punishes 64,000 criminals a year, unconstitutional because it allows judges, acting alone, to add to prison terms?

If they answer yes, the Supreme Court may force a profound shift in how criminals are sentenced in America, one that will affect the state courts in California and many other states as well as the federal system.

Until now, the general understanding has been that prosecutors charge defendants with a crime, juries typically decide whether they are guilty and, if so, judges impose the punishment. In recent rulings, however, a narrow Supreme Court majority has said the right to a jury trial also includes the right to have a jury decide the key facts that determine a sentence.


Other than a prior conviction, “any fact that increases the penalty for a crime” must be decided by the jury or admitted by the defendant, Justice Antonin Scalia said for a 5-4 majority in the case of Blakeley vs. Washington.

That simple statement struck down the sentencing system in Washington state, and it now threatens to do the same in the federal system. In both, judges are authorized to decide the “aggravating factors” that increase a prison term.

Take, for example, the case of Ducan Fanfan, who last year sold a small bag of cocaine to an informer outside a Burger King restaurant near Portland, Maine. A jury found him guilty as charged of selling at least 500 grams of cocaine, a crime that called for six years in prison under U.S. sentencing guidelines.

On June 28, four days after the Blakely ruling, Fanfan came before a federal judge for sentencing. Prosecutors said the defendant was the leader of a drug gang who had 2.5 kilograms of cocaine in his home and car. Based on these allegations -- which the judge found to be true -- Fanfan would go to prison for 16 years.

However, imposing such a stiff sentence would be unconstitutional under the just-announced Blakely ruling, the judge concluded. So he sent Fanfan to prison for six years based on just the jury’s verdict.

Bush administration lawyers appealed Fanfan’s case directly to the Supreme Court. They argued that it made a “mockery” of the law by permitting judges to give more lenient sentences based on certain facts but forbidding them from increasing the sentences based on other facts.

Fanfan’s is one of two cases that will be heard Monday afternoon as the justices debate what to do with the federal sentencing system.

The outcome is likely to affect most state courts. California does not have a detailed set of sentencing guidelines like the federal system, but state law calls for judges to increase a defendant’s prison term for certain “aggravating factors.”

Those increased sentences now stand in doubt.

So does the future of the death penalty for young murderers.

Four liberal-leaning justices -- John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer -- have already said they viewed such as executions as “shameful” and a “relic of the past.” If they are joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor or Anthony M. Kennedy, the court would limit capital punishment to those who were 18 or older at the time of their crimes.

Since 1990, only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have carried out executions of young murderers. The justices will take up a Missouri case, Roper vs. Simmons, on Oct. 13 to decide the issue.

The wine and marijuana cases will come before the court in December.

As wine has grown in popularity, many wine drinkers have asked whether they can order their favorite vintage from a distant vineyard and have it shipped directly to them. The answer depends on state laws.

About half the states forbid all direct shipments of wine across their borders. Only licensed wholesalers are permitted to import alcohol, and they in turn sell it to retailers. The states rely on the 21st Amendment, which repealed the prohibition on alcohol sales and was approved in 1933, for this authority. The amendment states that “importation into any state ... of intoxicating liquors is hereby prohibited.”

Although all states permit the sale of alcohol, they do so only through their own sets of regulations.

Eleanor Heald, a wine critic from Troy, Mich., and David Lucas, the owner of a small winery near Lodi, Calif., are challenging the bans on wine shipments to Michigan and New York. In the case of Granholm vs. Heald, they argue that the Constitution calls for a free flow of commerce across state lines, including that of alcohol.

“This case will determine whether consumers or a cartel of billion-dollar distributors will determine what wine is available to consumers in New York or two dozen other states,” said Clint Bolick of the Washington-based Institute for Justice, who represents Lucas.

The case of John Ashcroft vs. Angel Raich may determine the fate of the medical marijuana laws in California and eight other states. Raich, who suffers from an operable brain tumor, uses homegrown marijuana to relieve her pain. This is legal under the Compassionate Use Act approved by California’s voters.

However, Ashcroft, the U.S. attorney general, says that federal drug laws forbid all use of marijuana. Federal agents raided the homes of several Californian patients who grew their own.

The high court will decide whether the federal government has overreached. That question may see the court’s conservatives and liberals trade places.

In the last decade, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the conservative leader, has insisted on limiting federal power.

For example, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that struck down the federal Gun-Free Schools Zone Act on the grounds that mere gun possession did not involve interstate commerce. The liberal dissenters said the court should uphold the broad power of Congress.

Last year, the liberal U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco turned the tables. Relying on the logic of Rehnquist’s opinion, it ruled the use of homegrown marijuana was beyond federal authority because it did not involve interstate commerce.

The court will also hear a challenge to a unique California prison policy that segregates new inmates by race for as many as 60 days. Prison officials say they seek to prevent gang violence while new inmates are evaluated. Lawyers for Garrison Johnson, an African American inmate, say racial segregation is unconstitutional in all instances.

The court will also decide whether police can use drug-sniffing dogs in routine traffic stops. Usually, officers need some evidence of a drug crime before they search for narcotics. But prosecutors contend that when a trained dog sniffs the air, it is not engaged in a search, and therefore police may use dogs whenever and however they choose.

The agriculture industry will be closely watching a case about government-sponsored ad campaigns. Cattlemen are challenging the fees they must pay for ads such as “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”

Dozens of similar ad campaigns are sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as California and other states. A ruling in the case of Veneman vs. Livestock Marketing Assn. could free farmers from having to pay for them.



On the docket

Key cases before the Supreme Court in the first half of its 2004-05 term, which begins Monday:

Sentencing -- Are the federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional because they allow judges, acting without juries, to add to the prison terms of convicted criminals? (U.S. vs. Booker and U.S. vs. Fanfan. To be argued Monday.)

Deportation -- If immigrants drive drunk and injure another person, have they committed a “crime of violence” that requires deportation? (Leocal vs. U.S., Oct. 12.)

Executions -- Can states impose the death penalty on murderers who were under age 18 at the time of their crime, or is this cruel and unusual punishment? (Roper vs. Simmons, Oct. 13.)

Segregation -- Can California prison authorities segregate new inmates by race to avoid violence, or does all racial segregation violate the Constitution? (Johnson vs. California, Nov. 2.)

Age -- Do pay scales that favor younger workers violate the federal law against age discrimination? (Smith vs. city of Jackson [Miss.]. Nov. 3.)

Dogs -- May police officers who stop cars for traffic offenses use a dog to sniff the vehicle for drugs, or do they first need evidence of a possible drug crime? (Illinois vs. Caballes, Nov. 10.)

Marijuana -- Can U.S. agents raid the homes of Californians who grow and use marijuana to treat their pain, or does this exceed the federal power to “regulate commerce among the states”? (Ashcroft vs. Raich, Nov. 29.)

Wine -- Can states bar consumers from buying wine out of state and having it shipped to them, or does the Constitution protect the free flow of all goods, including alcohol? (Granholm vs. Heald, Dec. 7.)

Beef -- Can the government require cattlemen to pay for industry ad campaigns such as “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner,” or do these forced payments violate the free-speech rights of farmers? (Veneman vs. Livestock Marketing Assn., Dec. 8.)

Property -- Can cities seize private homes to make way for business developments? (Kelo vs. New London, January.)


Source: U.S. Supreme Court