Yarborough v. Alvarado (02-1684) and Kansas v. Colorado (105, Orig.)

June 1, 2004 Supreme Court Update

Greetings Court fans!
The Court has less than one month left in its Term, and yet today it issued only one opinion. Very odd. They must have some serious disagreements brewing on their remaining cases.
The opinion today is in Yarborough v. Alvarado (02-1684), a habeas case out of the Ninth Circuit. With that limited information, regular readers of these updates could guess that the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, but what they might not guess is that this was a 5-4 decision. Alvarado, who was then 17 years old, participated in an attempted car-jacking that resulted in the death of the vehicle's driver, although he did not actually pull the trigger. About a month later, a detective told Alvarado's parents that she wanted to talk with Alvarado about the crime, and his parents brought him to the sheriff's office. The detective spent 2 hours talking with Alvarado, and by the end of the conversation, Alvarado had admitted his role in the crime. This confession was used against Alvarado at his trial (obviously!), and he was convicted of second-degree murder. California state courts affirmed his conviction, but on habeas, the Ninth Circuit held that Alvarado's confession should not have been used against him because the detective had not given him a Miranda warning as required for custodial interrogations. According to the Ninth Circuit, the state courts erroneously concluded that Alvarado was not "in custody" for purposes of the interview.
Kennedy (for himself, the Chief, O'Connor, Scalia, and Thomas) reversed. Because this is a habeas case, the only question for federal courts is whether the state court decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court." Under established law (as reviewed by Kennedy), a person is in custody if a reasonable person under the circumstances would have felt he was not free to end the interrogation and leave. Putting aside the deferential standard of review, Kennedy acknowledged that reasonable people might disagree on whether Alvarado was in custody in this case. But because reasonable people could differ, the Court could not say that the California court's resolution of the question was "unreasonable." The Ninth Circuit came to the opposite conclusion because it believed that the state court should have considered Alvarado's age, but this was error. The Miranda custody test is an objective test and the Supreme Court has never suggested that age should be considered in this objective analysis. In fact, it should not be considered.
O'Connor wrote separately to emphasize that while there might be cases where a suspect's age will be relevant, in this case, Alvarado was almost 18 and so it was not unreasonable for the state court to ignore this factor. Breyer (joined by Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg) dissented. He believes that a reasonable person in Alvarado's shoes would not have felt free to leave the interview. In support of this conclusion, he dissects the majority's suggestion to the contrary. Moreover, he believes that the "reasonable person" standard in the custody test should be applied as it is in tort law to make allowance for certain characteristics of the actor (such as age) in certain circumstances.
That's all for the opinion, but there was one item of interest on the order list: the Court set a case in its original jurisdiction for oral argument, Kansas v. Colorado (105, Orig.). This case has been on the Court's docket (actively!) for nearly twenty years, has been through two special masters (the first one died), and has generated two published opinions. What, may you ask, could require so much sustained attention from the Court? Why, the Arkansas River Compact, of course! Kansas brought this action to enforce its rights under the compact against Colorado. The Court resolved liability issues in 1995, and now is considering issues related to the appropriate remedy. Trust me. That's about all you want to know about this case. We'll all learn more together next Term when the Court hands down its decision.
That's all until next week when the Court is expected to hand down more opinions. Until then, thanks for reading.

From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana.
For more information, contact Sandy Glover, Aaron Bayer, or Jeff Babbin
at 203-498-4400, or visit our website at www.wiggin.com.