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George Toca v. Louisiana, USSC No. 14-6381, cert. granted 12/12/14

Questions presented:

1) Does the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ____, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), apply retroactively to this case?

2) Is a federal question raised by a claim that a state collateral review court erroneously failed to find that a new constitutional rule fits within an exception to Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which held that new constitutional rules are generally not applied retroactively to cases on collateral review?

Lower court opinion: State v. Toca, 141 So.3d 265 (La. 2014)


Scotusblog page

Miller held that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without parole for juvenile offender. The decision did not, however, categorically bar sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole, but instead “mandates only that a sentencer follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing a particular penalty.” 132 S. Ct. at 2471. Miller voided the juvenile life-without-parole sentencing schemes of the federal government and 29 states (Wisconsin not among them) under which about 2,000 juveniles had been sentenced to die in prison. 132 S. Ct. at 2477 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

While Miller clearly applied to any offender whose conviction was not yet final, Griffith v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 314 (1987), the question immediately arose as to whether it applied retroactively to inmates whose convictions were final and who used Miller to challenge their sentence on collateral review. Inmates like George Toca, for instance, who had just turned age seventeen in 1984 when he was arrested for the shooting of his best friend during a botched armed robbery. Toca was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole under a Louisiana law requiring that sentence for such convictions. Toca sought a review of his sentence in light of Miller, but the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected his claim because it had previously held that Miller doesn’t apply retroactively to sentences that had become final before Miller was decided, State v. Tate, 130 So. 2d 829 (La. 2013), cert. denied, Tate v. Louisiana, No. 13-8915, 134 S. Ct. 2663 (May 27, 2014).

Determining retroactivity requires applying Teague v. Lane, which draws a line between decisions that are “procedural” and decisions that are “substantive.” Rules governing procedure are applied prospectively, while substantive criminal rules are applied retroactively. According to a recent tally, a total of five states have held Miller isn’t retroactive, while seven states have ruled it is; in addition, four of the six federal courts that have decided the issue have denied retroactive application. Brandon Buskey & Daniel Korobkin, Elevating Substance over Procedure: The Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama under Teague v. Lane, 18 C.U.N.Y. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2015) (available here). The Supreme Court will now resolve this split.

The second issue involves another, even more arcane matter of appellate law arising under Teague. Briefly, under Teague a federal court can’t grant collateral (i.e., habeas) relief to a state prisoner based on a rule announced after the prisoner’s conviction became final, unless the new rule falls into one of two narrow exceptions (namely, rules that “plac[e] certain kinds of primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe,” or “watershed rules of criminal procedure” implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding, 489 U. S. at 307, 311). Teague doesn’t limit a state court’s power to grant collateral relief under a new federal rule, however; states may give broader retroactive effect to a new rule, even if the new rule doesn’t fall into a Teague exception. Danforth v. Minnesota, 552 U.S. 264 (2008). But say a state collateral review court declines to apply a new rule retroactively because it decides the rule doesn’t fit into one of the Teague exceptions. Does the correctness of the state court’s Teague analysis create a question of federal law that the Supreme Court can review? A “no” answer to that question would mean a state court that erred in its Teague analysis couldn’t be compelled to grant relief on collateral review even though a federal habeas court could grant relief. Thus, the Court’s decision in this case may affect state collateral review cases beyond those addressing the retroactivity of Miller.

UPDATE (1/30/15): As described by Scotusblog (here) and Doug Berman (here), Toca and Lousiana struck a plea deal over the last few days, which has resulted in Toca’s murder conviction being vacated and his life sentence wiped out. On his plea to two counts of armed robbery, Toca was entitled to prompt release from prison after more than 30 years. The story cited by Doug Berman says the lawyers will ask the Court to dismiss the case. There may be pending cert petitions in other Miller retroactivity cases that the Court could take up instead. We will keep you updated.

UPDATE (2/6/15): Per the parties’ agreement, the case has been dismissed. A decision on Miller retroactivity will have to wait till another day.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Robert R. Henak December 15, 2014, 4:40 pm

    The second issue appears to be rather silly. The question of federal law is whether the particular sentence violates due process which, by its very nature, is a federal question and necessarily incorporates the question of what federal law applies.

  • Ruth Robinson December 19, 2014, 1:44 pm

    While the second issue might just be “rather silly,” the Court may just use this to get around having to make a new rule or clarify whether Miller is retroactive. I believe that Miller is retroactive, but I also know that there could be a deeper reason why the Court doesn’t want to force this down the States’ throats. Beware of the second issue, it could end up being the first issue and the Court not get to issue 1. Or the Court could do an advisory type of opinion and give verbage about issue 1, but never get to a holding because of issue 2. Then again, it could be simple, as you say.

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