November 18, 2010
The final round of the annual Ames Moot Court Competition took place on November 16 in the Ames Courtroom.
This year’s case, McBride v. United States, was written by Tejinder Singh '08. Petitioner Kermit McBride was a blogger convicted of hacking into the Ames City Exchange to display the message “The Taxpayers Demand a Refund. Or else…” on the trading floor’s screens and ticker. The first question on appeal to the Ames Supreme Court was whether the “good faith exception” to the exclusionary rule applies to evidence obtained pursuant to a search warrant, when the evidence supporting the issuance of the warrant was itself obtained during a warrantless search that violated the Fourth Amendment. The good faith exception provides that evidence collected in violation of the Fourth Amendment can be admitted at trial if the officer was acting in good faith reliance upon a defective search warrant. The second question on appeal was whether a district court may issue a special condition of supervised release barring an offender from all use of computers and the Internet.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court presided over the oral argument. The panel also included Judge Diana Murphy of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Julia Smith-Gibbons of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Hon. William Wayne Justice Memorial Team represented the petitioner, arguing the position that the evidence that sent McBride to prison resulted from two unconstitutional searches of his home and should have been suppressed. The petitioner also argued that the conditions of McBride’s supervised release—specifically that he not be allowed to use a computer or the Internet for three years—were impermissible because conditions of supervised release must involve no greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary to fulfill three purposes: protecting the public, deterring re-offense, and rehabilitating the offender.
In questioning the first oralist for the petitioner (Philip Mayor), Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that information wrongfully obtained could be passed from officer to officer, department to department, before it is used to execute a search warrant. That situation would leave the officer performing the search very far removed from the initial misconduct. He and Judge Smith-Gibbons questioned the validity of suppressing a warrant in those circumstances.
“The information, if it traveled in some particularly attenuated, circuitous way, might be admissible depending on the facts of the case. It’s not the case before the court here. But that analysis would have to focus on whether or not there was anything more going on than passing the information from one person to the next until it got to the useful person,” said Mayor. “The primary idea is to make sure that an officer does not have an understanding that, if he or she conducts an unlawful search, there is a way to launder that to the appropriate authorities. A process that involved simply handing it around in order to get around a rule would certainly not be ok.”
Exploring the second issue on appeal, Chief Justice Roberts noted that, rather than receive one year of prison time and a three-year internet and computer ban, the petitioner could have received a longer prison sentence for this crime, which would have deprived him of computer use for an even longer period.
Oralist Jason Harrow replied that the Supreme Court has firmly held that supervised release and prison are not interchangeable and that the district judge indicated that a longer sentence would bring no benefits.
“Taking a look at less restrictive alternatives would have revealed that the district judge could have furthered those goals of protecting the public and ensuring that no further crime happens while at the same time providing great benefits to defendant’s liberty,” Harrow said. “There’s a cascade of First Amendment interests involved here, from his right to speak and publish and think and associate, and there are employment restrictions that will be crushing."
Harrow pointed out that more than sixty percent of jobs currently require the use of a computer, and that the sentence should have included a restriction that allows computer and internet use in the context of employment.
The Griffin Bell Memorial Team, representing the respondent, argued that the exclusionary rule should not be extended to the circumstances of this case because its value in deterring possible police misconduct would be small, and the rule should only apply only where its deterrent value outweighs its substantial social costs, which includes the possibility of freeing the guilty. As to the second point, the respondent argued that the district court properly exercised its sentencing discretion in restricting McBride’s computer and internet usage because restrictions on computer and internet use are especially appropriate where those technologies were instrumentalities of the petitioner’s crime.
David Denton, the first oralist for the respondent, opened his argument by explaining the standard for evaluating police error in such cases.
“Police error must be both sufficiently culpable that it merits the toll suppression exacts on the administration of justice and sufficiently deliberate that suppression can meaningfully deter it,” he said.
Chief Justice Roberts observed that the warrantless search of the petitioner’s home plainly violated the Fourth Amendment and asked Denton to explain why the evidence should not have been suppressed.
“There is a fine line between a Fourth Amendment violation and police conduct so unreasonable that it necessitates suppression,” said Denton. “This court has long held that not every Fourth Amendment violation necessarily merits suppression, that there is some room for officers to have reasonable but mistaken beliefs that what they’re doing is appropriate. And we think that this is such a case.”
Addressing the second question on appeal, Judge Murphy asked whether supervised release is not about looking backwards at the crime that happened, but is actually about looking forward and trying to reform the defendant.
Oralist Lindsay See replied that while supervised release is indeed intended to help the offender reintegrate into society, sentencing judges must also be attuned to the dual goal of providing for public safety during the reintegration process. She emphasized that there is a need to protect the public in this case because the petitioner’s actions significantly affected the public, in that it led to financial losses in the stock exchange that devastated a number of small businesses and caused a panic.
The sentence in this case was appropriate, she said. “There is an emerging consensus among the circuits that restricting computer use is appropriate where the criminal uses the computer to harm society.”
Before reading the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts told the teams how thrilled he was to participate in the Ames final.
“I decided very early my first semester that I wanted to participate in an Ames final, and I decided that the easier way would be to get appointed Chief Justice and come back as a judge and come back than to do what you have had to do,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
He highlighted the strengths in each of the oralists’ arguments, concluding that the panel was very impressed with the briefs and by the advocates.
“It was very difficult for us, and it isn’t always the case when we do these moot courts, but we found the choices here were hard ones to make. Certainly all of the advocates should be congratulated – all the folks who worked on the briefs and helped prepare their team members. It was a very good presentation,” Chief Justice Roberts said.
The judges recognized the Hon. William Wayne Justice Memorial Team as best overall team, David Denton (from the Griffin Bell Memorial Team) as best oralist, and the Hon. William Wayne Justice Memorial Team for best written brief.
The 2010 Final Round teams were:
The Hon. William Wayne Justice Memorial Team
The Griffin Bell Memorial Team
Chief Justice Roberts surprised students earlier that day by stopping by Judge Michael Boudin’s Antitrust class and Professor John Manning’s Legislation and Regulation class. He answered questions from students about serving on the Court and his time at Harvard Law School.
The Ames Moot Court Competition was established in 1911 as the result of a bequest by the late Dean James Barr Ames. The Board of Student Advisers is charged with administrating the Competition, and the competition takes place in three rounds, beginning with the Qualifying Round (held in the fall of competitors’ 2L year), followed by the Semi-Final Round (held in the spring of competitors’ 2L year), and culminating in the Final Round (held in the fall of competitors’ 3L year).
— Jill Greenfield