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3 High Court Rulings Change Legal Landscape

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3 High Court Rulings Change Legal Landscape


3 High Court Rulings Change Legal Landscape

3 High Court Rulings Change Legal Landscape

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Supreme Court has released three significant decisions: When federal courts may act to enforce federal mandates on the states, when, if ever, school officials may conduct strip searches of students for drugs; and the rights of criminal defendants to cross examine crime lab analysts. The rulings will have far-reaching consequences.


The U.S. Supreme Court has changed the legal landscape in several major areas of the law: first, when, if ever, school officials may conduct strip searches of students for drugs - second, the right of criminal defendants to cross-examine crime lab analysts, and third, when federal courts may act to enforce federal mandates on the states, which is the case that NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg begins with.

NINA TOTENBERG: In the case involving the federal law on English-language education, the court made it easier for state schools to get out from under federal court supervision. The five-to-four decision could have far-reaching consequences for litigations seeking to enforce other federal standards on mental hospitals, prisons and other state institutions.

In a case involving the strip search of a 13-year-old honor student, the court put new limits on how far school officials can go in searching students. By an eight-to-one vote, the court said it was reasonable to search Savana Redding's backpack and outer garments, but not reasonable to subject the girl to a strip search, especially in light of the humiliating nature of such a search, the limited dangers of the ibuprofen she was suspected of giving a friend and the slim basis for the school officials' suspicions.

The court did hand school officials one partial victory by making its ruling prospective, meaning that while school officials in the future can be subject to personal damage suits, in this case, the suit against the officials who searched Redding was tossed out. Redding, nonetheless, was elated.

Ms. SAVANA REDDING (Student): I feel victorious right now. I don't want this to ever happen to anybody, and it makes it all worthwhile for me.

TOTENBERG: The court's third ruling, requiring crime lab analysts to testify, will undoubtedly have the most immediate consequences. The decision delivered a major jolt to the criminal justice system. Until yesterday, prosecutors in the vast majority of states submitted notarized reports from crime lab analysts as evidence in criminal trials, and the analysts were not required to testify.

But yesterday, a bitterly divided Supreme Court said that procedure is unconstitutional unless the defense agrees to it. Writing for the five-member majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the Constitution in specific words guarantees a defendant the right to confront the witnesses against him. And a crime lab analyst, he said, is a witness with important evidence.

Indeed, said Scalia, multiple studies have demonstrated that scientific evidence is hardly immune to manipulation, fraud or error. An angry Justice Anthony Kennedy in dissent accused the majority of defying common sense to put the criminal justice system in jeopardy.

As of today, only 10 states appear to have state laws that comply with the Supreme Court's decision. Scott Burns of the National District Attorney's Association said the decision would be costly and chaotic.

Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Executive Director, National District Attorney's Association): In the real world, it's bad for already stressed state budgets. I mean, we're going to have criminalists who should be in the labs doing their work sitting in courtrooms all day.

SHAPIRO: Alabama Deputy Attorney General Corey Maze, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of 35 states, said the decision is not as bad as it could have been since the Supreme Court provided something of a road map for state compliance: require the prosecution to notify the defense pre-trial when crime lab reports are to be introduced, and if the defense wants the analyst to testify, it must say so in advance of trial. Corey Maze.

Deputy Attorney General COREY MAZE (State of Alabama): The question then simply becomes: Do defense attorneys always demand the presence, or do they do like they do currently, only demand in 5 to 10 percent of cases? We won't know that, you know, at least for the next couple of years.

TOTENBERG: If prosecutors were upset by the ruling, though, some leading forensic experts were not. Thomas Bohan, president of the National Academy of Forensic Scientists, called the decision a no-brainer.

Mr. THOMAS BOHAN (President, National Academy of Forensic Sciences): Many of the techniques which are thought by the public, and by judges, to have been scientifically established have not been. I mean, this includes handwriting analysis, bite mark matching. It includes latent fingerprints, which have never been quantitatively studied concerning the error rate.

TOTENBERG: Remember the FBI's 100 percent match of a Portland lawyer's fingerprints with those found on the detonators of a Spanish train bomb? Three FBI experts vouched for the match until Spanish authorities matched an Algerian suspect instead. Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project notes that forensic scientists for years produced reports of hair matches without mentioning that the hair also matched thousands of other people's hair.

Mr. PETER NEUFELD (Innocence Project): We have had more than three dozen wrongful conviction cases where the crime analyst wrote a report saying the hair matched.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, last February, a report by the National Academy of Sciences found crime labs across the country plagued by incompetence, fraud and just plain, bad science. The report called for the creation of a federal agency to establish standards for crime lab testing.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Court Calls Search Of Student's Underwear Illegal

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Arizona middle school officials acted illegally when they searched a 13-year-old student's underwear for prescription and over-the-counter pills.

The justices voted 8-1 that Safford Middle School officials violated the girl's Fourth Amendment rights when they forced her to shake out her underwear. However, they said the officials couldn't be held liable.

Savana Redding, now in college, was an eighth-grader at Safford, in eastern Arizona, when a classmate accused her of providing some prescription ibuprofen. The school, which bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs without advance permission, called Redding in for questioning. She denied the accusation and allowed her backpack to be searched. Officials found nothing, but they ordered Redding to take off her clothes and then went a step further, ordering her to shake out her underwear.

No pills were found.

The court found that a "reasonable" search of the body of an adolescent would require some reason to believe the search would be fruitful or that the contraband was dangerous.

"In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear," Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion. "We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable."

Souter wrote that the court did not intend to cast doubts on the motives of the school officials, believing that their aim was to protect the students. Therefore, the justices ruled that school officials cannot be held liable in a lawsuit over the search. They said a lower court would have to decide on the liability of Stafford United School District No. 1.

In another ruling involving Arizona public schools, the justices narrowly decided that a lower court should re-evaluate the state's instructional program for non-native English speakers.

In a 5-4 vote, the court reversed a ruling that has kept Arizona's program for English-language learners under the supervision of a federal judge for violations of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

The case stems from a 1997 lawsuit filed by students and their parents in Nogales, Ariz., alleging that Arizona was not providing equal opportunities for native and non-native English students. A federal appeals court ruled in their favor.

Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the federal judge in Arizona must re-evaluate the steps the state has taken to increase opportunities under the No Child Left Behind law passed in 2002 and subsequent changes enacted by the state's Legislature.

But the dissenting judges said the district court had gotten a fair accounting of the changes during an eight-day hearing in 2007. Justice Stephen Breyer said the court's decision risks undermining efforts to enhance the participation of non-native English speakers in U.S. schools, workplaces, politics and government.

In other Supreme Court actions Thursday:

• The court ruled that crime lab reports may be introduced as evidence in court only if defense attorneys can cross-examine the persons who prepared them.

The 5-4 decision involves the cocaine trafficking conviction of Luis Melendez-Diaz in Massachusetts. The conviction was based, in part, on evidence obtained from plastic bags found in a car in which Melendez-Diaz was riding.

Defense attorneys wanted to interview the forensic analyst about how the evidence was collected and tested, but a Massachusetts court turned down their request. Later, the National Innocence Network — a network of defense attorneys — argued that the testimony was vital because of errors in crime labs across the country.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said the constitutional rights of defendants cannot be relaxed because of the burden it might cause prosecutors.

With reporting from NPR wire services