Interesting 2019 Cases Before the Courts in Phoenix, AZ


Below are a few of the interesting cases before the courts in Phoenix, Arizona.

  • Death Penalty Sentencing

In 1993, James Erin McKinney was sentenced to death for murder. McKinney was abused as a child and continued to suffer from PTSD throughout his adult life, but the judge did not consider his childhood history during his sentencing hearing as a mitigating factor.

In 1993 when he was sentenced, Arizona had the “casual nexus rule.” The causal nexus rule required that any mitigating evidence, like mental illness or past abuse, be directly tied to the crime to be considered during sentencing. Because McKinney’s child abuse and the effect it had on his psyche was not directly related to the murders, it was not admissible evidence in his sentencing hearing.

In 2002, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Ring v. Arizona that the casual nexus rules violated the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. After this ruling, the Arizona Supreme Court reaffirmed McKinney’s sentence, but it was not sent back to the trial court.

McKinney’s attorneys argued that the sentencing judge should be required to consider his traumatic past as a mitigating factor. The U.S. Supreme Court announced on June 10, 2019 that it will hear the case and decide whether he is entitled to be sentenced under the law as it existed in 1991 or the law as it exists now. This ruling will have broad implications for other death-row inmates in Arizona. Currently, there are more than 100 inmates on death row in Arizona.

  • Definition of Medical Marijuana

On May 28, 2019, Arizona’s Supreme Court found that the definition of marijuana under the medical marijuana law includes both marijuana’s dry leaf form and extracts. Marijuana extracts are commonly found in oils, edibles, vape-pen cartridges, concentrates, and infused food and drinks. The case is State v. Jones.

The case arose in 2013 when Rodney Jones was arrested and charged with possession of cannabis and drug paraphernalia for possessing a jar containing 0.05 ounces of hashish, a marijuana extract. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, despite being a qualified patient under Arizona’s medical marijuana law.

The Arizona Supreme Court found that the definition of marijuana under the act included all forms of marijuana, not only the dry leaf form. The Supreme Court stated that the law only limited the amount of marijuana that could be possessed, not the form.

  • Drug-Related Crime Sentencing

The Arizona Supreme Court, located in Phoenix, will clarify Arizona’s sentencing law for individuals convicted of drug-related crimes. In 1996, Arizona lawmakers passed the Drug, Medicalization, Prevention, and Control Act, which allows non-violent drug possession offenders to serve time through probation rather than going to prison. The law was intended to relieve prison overcrowding. The law excludes those who have been convicted of violent crimes or who have reached the “three-strike” limit of possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia convictions.

There was confusion of whether solicitation to sell a drug also counts as possession as defined under the “three-strike” limit. In 2019, the Arizona Supreme Court will be deciding what charges are counted as part of the “three-strike” limit under the law. This decision will give guidance to lower courts when they are interpreting the statute and will lead to more consistent sentencing.

  • Arizona’s Department of Child Safety

In April of 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a lawsuit filed against Arizona’s Department of Child Safety (“DCS”) to continue as a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit, initially filed in 2015, challenges both how DCS handled the care of the specific children filing and DCS’s practices and procedures affecting all children in its care. DCS currently has more than 14,000 children under its care.

The lawsuit alleges that DCS is not providing appropriate mental, behavioral, and other health services to the children in its care. It further asserts that DCS is not placing children in safe living arrangements because they are both failing to investigate reports of maltreatment and there is a severe shortage of homes. Finally, the lawsuit claims that DCS is not taking the proper steps to reunite children with their families. A win could force DCS to reform their practices and hire more caseworkers.

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