The “Murder Scene Exception” – Myth or Reality? Empirically Testing the Influence of Crime Severity in Federal Search-and-Seizure Cases

Prior experimental studies suggest that judges are susceptible to cognitive biases when making legal decisions, such as being motivated by the legally irrelevant nature of a defendant’s crime when determining the admissibility of challenged evidence. However, that research has been constrained to hypothetical cases, limiting the real-world conclusions that can be drawn from it. Addressing this empirical gap, we offer a novel observational analysis that tests the influence of crime severity on suppression outcomes in actual search-and-seizure cases from U.S. Courts of Appeals.

Using legislative criminal penalties to measure crime severity, our analysis shows that as crime severity increases, judges become significantly less likely to exclude challenged evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds—even though crime severity is not a doctrinally relevant consideration. Another legally extrinsic factor, the ideology of the opinion-writing judge, is also found to exert an influence, but only in the most serious criminal cases that involve a life sentence or the death penalty. In these particularly high-stakes decisions, conservative-leaning judges are more likely to uphold the admissibility of challenged evidence, while liberal-leaning judges are more likely to suppress it. Our data also indicate that the intrusiveness of the challenged police search, a doctrinally relevant factor, independently influences admissibility judgments.

The results of our study both confirm and complicate existing understandings of judicial decision-making in the Fourth Amendment context and beyond. Furthermore, by directly building on two lines of prior experimental findings grounded in psychology theory, the “empirical triangulation” approach we operationalize here illustrates an advantageous model for optimizing the validity of empirical scholarship on judicial behavior.

Why Didn’t the Common Law Follow the Flag?

This Article considers a puzzle about how different kinds of law came to be distributed around the world. The legal systems of some European colonies largely reflected the laws of the colonizer. Other colonies exhibited a greater degree of legal pluralism, in which the state administered a mix of different legal systems. Conventional explanations for this variation look to the extent of European settlement: where colonizers settled in large numbers, they chose to bring their own laws; otherwise, they preferred to retain preexisting ones. This Article challenges that assumption by offering a new account of how and why the British Empire selectively transplanted English law to the colonies it acquired during the eighteenth century. The extent to which each colony received English law depended on a political decision about what kind of colony policymakers wanted to create. Eighteenth-century observers agreed that English law could turn any territory into an anglicized, commercial colony on the model of Britain’s North American settlements. Preserving preexisting laws, in contrast, would produce colonial economies that enriched the empire as a whole but kept local subjects poor and politically disadvantaged. By controlling how much English law each colony received, British officials hoped to shape its economic, political, and cultural trajectory. This historical account revises not only our understanding of how the common law spread but also prevailing ideas about law’s place in development policy today.

Is Powell Still Valid? The Supreme Court’s Changing Stance on Cruel and Unusual Punishment

In its seminal case Robinson v. California, the Supreme Court struck down a state statute criminalizing narcotics addiction. The Court held this statute, in criminalizing the disease of drug addiction, constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Six years later in Powell v. Texas, the Court declined to extend this holding to encompass alcoholism, because alcoholism involves the act of drinking rather than the status of addiction. However, the Court’s modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has signaled a shift in its understanding of cruel and unusual punishment. The Court has begun to take into account brain development, and its relationship to culpability, for certain classes of offenders. Neurological findings regarding the brain development involved in chronic alcoholism necessitate a similar shift in the Court’s framework for analyzing the penalization of chronic alcoholism and, given the Court’s changing stance, call into question the constitutionality of Virginia’s habitual drunkard statute. Rather than viewing alcoholism under the act-versus-status dichotomy, the Court’s Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis signals a shift towards understanding addictions such as chronic alcoholism under a non-binary framework that takes into account recent scientific understandings of addiction. Much like the Court’s shift in the juvenile and intellectual disability contexts, a similar shift should occur, this Note posits, in the Court’s proportionality analysis as applied to statutes involving chronic alcoholism. This Note concludes by calling into question the continued constitutionality of Virginia’s habitual drunkard statute under the Court’s changing jurisprudence.