Monday the Supreme Court resumed its argument schedule hearing the first cases of the new year. The Court will hear cases on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week, including some complicated water rights cases between states, a voter registration case, and two potentially very big Fourth Amendment cases.
Texas v. New Mexico AND Colorado
Texas is suing New Mexico for violating the Rio Grande Compact of 1938. That agreement, which functions as sort of a treaty between states with the agreement of the federal government, was designed to provide for equitable distribution of Rio Grande waters between the three states. Texas claims New Mexico allows diversions of water in contravention of the agreement, and to its detriment. Colorado was brought in simply because they are a part of the compact.
Florida v. Georgia
This case is another water dispute between states, concerning the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. Florida wants more water than it’s getting and claims Georgia is taking more than it is entitled to. Scotusblog points out the case has been called the “emblem of Sisyphean water conflict in the eastern United States.” Indeed. As this briefing is not intended as a sleep aid, I will leave it there, but should you desire a complete rundown, here it is.
Byrd v. United States
Mr. Byrd’s paramour rented a car and loaned it to him. While driving through Pennsylvania, he was stopped for a traffic violation and troopers searched the car, discovering heroin and a bulletproof vest. The vest was problematic because of a prohibition on possession of body armor after a felony conviction for a violent crime. What Mr. Byrd’s lady-friend did not do, was add his name to the rental agreement as an authorized driver. The troopers say that since he wasn’t on the paperwork, he had no expectation of privacy, and they were free to do as they pleased looking in the trunk and elsewhere. Mr. Byrd says his name missing from the paperwork is not important, and that if the rule is allowed to stand, police will essentially be able to search any rental car driver not in compliance with every term of the rental contract.
Collins v. Virginia
Police in Albemarle County, Virginia were frustrated by a motorcyclist who repeatedly and successfully fled during high-speed manoeuvres (140 mph+), evading arrest. While the rider’s helmet concealed his identity, police had some suspicion who the guilty party was. They stalked Collins’ social media pages and after seeing a house with a covered motorcycle at it paid a visit. They then walked, without permission, to the side of the house where the motorcycle was covered with a tarp, removed it, and ran the Vehicle Identification Number, determining the Suzuki was stolen. Police charged Collins with possession, but he challenges the conviction on the grounds that the evidence police collected was illegally obtained and therefore must be thrown out.
The lower court ruled the evidence admissible under the vehicle exception to the Fourth Amendment. That exception was written not by James Madison, but by the Supreme Court in 1925, to ease police searches during prohibition. It says that given the mobile nature of automobiles, police are not bound by the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment when searching them. Collins says that may be fine for vehicles on the side of the road, but this vehicle was on private property up on the side of the house and covered, which makes it less like a vehicle for Fourth Amendment analysis purposes, and more like any other property which, requires a warrant to search. As Amy Howe reports at Scotusblog:
Collins has amassed an unusual collection of “friend of the court” briefs supporting his position, filed by organizations ranging from the National Rifle Association to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Motorcyclist Association. The NRA stresses that the Fourth Amendment’s “first and highest purpose is to protect the sanctity of the home,” an interest that “also forms the cornerstone of several other fundamental constitutional liberties, including the right to armed self-defense protected by the Second Amendment.”
Husted v. Randolph Institute
This case was brought by the ACLU to challenge Ohio’s practice of automatic purging of voter rolls of inactive voters. If a person doesn’t vote in two successive elections in Ohio, they send a notice which must be returned or, the person is removed from the rolls and must re-register to vote. That happened to Larry Harmon, who claims not to have remembered even seeing the mailer notice, and who was denied the right to vote in November 2015. He claims Ohio’s practice violates both National Voter Registration Act and the Help America Vote Act. In an interesting twist, at the lower appellate level, lawyers from the Obama administration argued that Ohio’s practices were impermissible, and now at the Supreme Court, Trump administration lawyers are arguing the opposite.