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Supreme Court rules on patents, property

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Posted at 7:12 PM, Jun 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-22 19:16:39-04

The Supreme Court handed down rulings on four of the remaining 11 cases for this term Monday. The decisions covered patents, property, excessive force by jail guards and illegal searches.

The court has not yet issued rulings on the much-anticipated cases for marriage equality or the Affordable Care Act. The court had originally scheduled one more day, June 29, to release opinions but has now added Thursday and Friday to its calendar.

Patent holders cannot be paid after the patent expires
The Supreme Court ruled that patent holders cannot keep getting paid for their inventions after the patent expires, upholding a previous Supreme Court decision.

Marvel agreed to pay Stephen Kimble royalties for a Spider-Man glove that shot out fake spider webs. He held a patent on the glove, but the contract did not specify how long payments would last. When the patent on the toy expired after the typical 20 years, Marvel stopped paying Kimble. The district court and the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Marvel based on the Supreme Court case Brulotte v. Thys, which also ruled patent holders were not entitled to royalties after the patent expired.

The court reaffirmed these decisions in a 6-3 vote, determining Kimble’s reasons for overturning Brulotte were not substantial enough.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the opinion, which was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented along with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Crops, like raisins, are protected property
In Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot make raisin growers forfeit a portion of their crops because they are protected property under the Fifth Amendment.

Marvin and Laura Horne refused to give the USDA a portion of their raisin crop, violating a law passed in 1937, which allows the government to require growers to reserve a portion of their crops for government management. The law said the government could take the crops for free to help control market prices. It would pay farmers only if it made profit on the produce.

The court’s ruling reversed the 9th Circuit’s decision on an 8-1 vote, with Sotomayor dissenting. The ruling upheld that personal property — such as cars, computers or raisins — is protected under the Fifth Amendment as is real property, such as houses.

Excessive force needs to be determined objectively
The Supreme Court ruled that county jails need to set objective standards for use of force against prisoners who have not yet been convicted. The court reversed a ruling from the 7th Circuit Court and sent the case back for a rehearing.

Michael Kingsley sued officers in a Wisconsin county jail after they used force to remove him from his cell after he refused to comply with their instructions. Kingsley had not been convicted of a crime and was being held until his trial.

After a jury trial found in favor of the officers, Kingsley appealed. He claimed the instructions to the jury did not require that jurors consider whether the guards had intentionally violated Kingsley’s rights or had use force with complete disregard for his rights.

The 7th Circuit disagreed, saying that subjective standards about the officers’ intentions – whether or not they meant to violate or disregard his rights – should be used. The Supreme Court reversed this decision on a 5-4 vote, with Breyer, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan agreeing. Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito dissented.

Officers cannot conduct a search without judicial review
In a case involving the city of Los Angeles and a group of hotel operators, the Supreme Court decided city ordinances allowing officers to search hotel records was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The 5-4 vote upheld the decision of the 9th Circuit.

Los Angeles requires hotel operators to keep records about their guests, and the hotel operators can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor if the records are not maintained correctly. The district court sided with the city because it said hotel operators did not have an expectation of privacy for the records. But the 9th Circuit reversed this decision because the ordinance did not allow for a neutral party, such as a judge, to review the records for compliance before a search.

The city will now need to get a subpoena before getting hotel records if the hotel operator declines to give up the records voluntarily. The city wanted access to records because it said maintaining the records is a deterrent to criminal activity like prostitution and housing undocumented immigrants.

Kagan, Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor joined the majority opinion, and Alito, Roberts and Thomas dissented.

Reach reporter Jaelynn Grisso at jaelynn.grisso@scripps.com.