John Roberts on Crime

Supreme Court Justice (nominated by Pres. George W. Bush 2005)


Ok to prosecute for eating french fries on city trains

There was a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority case?known as the french fry case?which some critics point to as a sign of a certain hard-heartedness in Roberts’ decision making. In the unanimous ruling last October in Hedgepeth v. WMATA, Roberts upheld the arrest, handcuffing and detention of a 12-year-old girl for eating a single french fry inside a DC Metrorail station. “No one is very happy about the events that led to this litigation,” Roberts acknowledged in the decision, but he ruled that nothing the police did violated the girl’s Fourth Amendment or Fifth Amendment rights.
Source: Tony Mauro, Legal Times , Feb 22, 2005

Guidelines for parole can’t add to sentence retroactively

Roberts joined the decision in FLETCHER v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:

Thaddeus Fletcher sued the DC Department of Corrections, claiming the Parole Commission violated the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution by determining his parole eligibility date on the basis of parole guidelines promulgated after his incarceration date. The district court dismissed Fletcher’s claim. We held Fletcher’s claim failed because a parole guideline is not a law. Fletcher now calls our attention to Garner v. Jones, in which the Supreme Court considered a challenge to a non-binding parole regulation under the Ex Post Facto Clause. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that a parole board rule changing the time for reconsideration of parole from three to eight years necessarily violated the Ex Post Facto Clause. The Supreme Court foreclosed our categorical distinction between a law and guidelines ; rather, the question is one of practical effect. Accordingly, we vacate our previous judgment.

Source: FindLaw case 02-5228, US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit , Nov 19, 2004

Police supervisors not liable for misdeeds of officers

Roberts authored the decision in INTERNATIONAL ACTION CENTER v. UNITED STATES:

Plaintiffs seek to hold four police supervisors personally liable for constitutional torts allegedly committed by their two subordinates, on the theory that the supervisors failed properly to train and supervise the subordinates. The four supervisors claim qualified immunity, which the district court denied. We hold that the district court erred, and accordingly reverse.

Plaintiffs are members of the IAC, a political association opposed to oppression, militarism, and the Bush Administration. During the 2001 Inaugural Parade, they claim to have been engaged in only lawful activity, and were struck, and sprayed with pepper spray, while uniformed police officers stood by and watched. Plaintiffs seek to hold two officers’ supervisors personally liable for money damages.

We reject plaintiffs’ theory of liability for general inaction, mindful of the degree of fault necessary to implicate supervisory liability.

Source: FindLaw case 03-5163, US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit , Apr 16, 2004

Live witness not required for all scientific testing.

Justice Roberts joined the dissent on BULLCOMING v. NEW MEXICO on Jun 23, 2011:

Bullcoming was arrested for drunk driving. A blood sample seized by police was given to a state laboratory for testing of its blood alcohol content (BAC). A state chemist performed the test and completed a portion of a document intended for use in a criminal trial. At trial this chemist was not present--was, in fact, on an unexplained unpaid leave--but another chemist appeared to describe the lab's process and read the results from the form over defense counsel's objection.

HELD: Delivered by Ginsburg; joined by Scalia, Sotomayor, Kagan & Thomas

The Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause confers on the accused in criminal cases "the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him." The testing chemist was not a mere scrivener of results, but performed the test and recorded significant facts about its integrity and accuracy. The substituted chemist had no personal knowledge of the blood test at all, or information as to whether the testing chemist was on unpaid leave owing to a failure in his duties. The Sixth Amendment provides a particular guarantee. Courts are not invited to look behind the text for the purpose, and from there to craft something "fair." Further, the report of BAC analysis was "testimonial." It was prepared as part of a duty imposed by law on state chemists to assist with police investigations, and included formalities intended for its introduction as evidence in a criminal case.

CONCURRED: Sotomayor concurs in part

This holding does not control non-testimonial documents, testimony by a person with some personal knowledge of a test, an expert witness, or introduction of machine-generated results.

DISSENT: Kennedy dissents; joined by Roberts, Breyer, and Alito

The Confrontation Clause is intended to ensure a fair trial with reliable evidence, not that every person who conducts routine evidence testing appear in court for the prosecution.
Source: Supreme Court case 11-BULL-NM argued on Mar 2, 2011

International Court not grounds for stay of execution.

Justice Roberts wrote the Court's decision on HUMBERTO LEAL v. TEXAS on Jul 7, 2011:

Leal, a Mexican citizen residing in the US since age 2, was convicted of murder in Texas and sentenced to death. When arrested, he was newver advised of his Vienna Convention right to contact his consulate. In a case filed by Mexico against the US in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), that court found the US had violated the rights of Leal and other Mexicans by failing to inform them of the Vienna Convention rights.


Leal requests a stay of execution to allow Congress time to enact a bill filed in the Senate and supported by the President that would implement the ICJ's view of the Vienna Convention as US law. The Supreme Court would then have jurisdiction to determine Leal's case. Yet this Court has never issued a stay in light of proposed legislation. Further, Congress has not acted though 7 years have passed since the ICJ decision, and 3 since a similar defendant requested a stay of his execution in hopes Congress would act. If this were truly a legislative priority, Congress would have acted. Whatever might be the international consequences, Congress did not see them as sufficiently grave as to prompt it to change the law. Last, the US refused to argue that Leal was prejudiced by the failure to provide Vienna Convention rights. This argument would be the beginning point for the Court to consider a stay.


The President's representative requested that the Court issue a stay of execution. Grave harm to international relations may follow if this death sentence is carried out despite the US failure to heed the ICJ's ruling. Rapid consideration of legislation by Congress is promised. This Court usually gives great deference to the President in foreign relations. A short delay in Leal's 16 year old death sentence will do little harm compared to a violation of US international obligations.
Source: Supreme Court case 11-LEAL argued on Jul 7, 2011

Other Justices on Crime: John Roberts on other issues:
Samuel Alito(since 2006)
Amy Coney Barrett(since 2020)
Stephen Breyer(since 1994)
Neil Gorsuch(since 2017)
Ketanji Brown Jackson(nominated 2022)
Elena Kagan(since 2010)
Brett Kavanaugh(since 2018)
John Roberts(since 2005)
Sonia Sotomayor(since 2009)
Clarence Thomas(since 1991)

Former Justices:
Merrick Garland(nominated 2016)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg(1993-2020)
Anthony Kennedy(1988-2018)
Antonin Scalia(1986-2016)
John Paul Stevens(1975-2010)
David Souter(1990-2009)
Sandra Day O'Connor(1981-2006)
William Rehnquist(1975-2005)

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Page last updated: Mar 21, 2022