Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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The court vacated the grant of qualified immunity to prison officials and summary judgment, concluding that a reasonable prison official had fair warning that retaliating against an inmate who filed a prison grievance was unlawful and an inmate's First Amendment right to be free from retaliation for filing a grievance was clearly established at the time. Plaintiff, an inmate at SCDC, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that he received a disciplinary charge in retaliation for filing a prison grievance. Although the court agreed with the district court's conclusion that no published decision squarely addressed whether filing a grievance was protected First Amendment conduct, the court concluded that the district court failed to consider whether the right was clearly established based on general constitutional principles or a consensus of persuasive authority. In this case, the inmate's right was clearly established based on a robust consensus of persuasive authority where the Second, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuits have all recognized in published decisions that inmates possess a right, grounded in the First Amendment's Petition Clause, to be free from retaliation in response to filing a prison grievance. View "Booker v. South Carolina Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The court affirmed the denial of defendant's motion to suppress evidence obtained from an initial stop, holding that a state computer database indication of insurance status may establish reasonable suspicion when the officer was familiar with the database and the system itself was reliable. Officers initially stopped defendant after a computer search lead to the discovery that he was in the country illegally and was harboring undocumented immigrants at his residence. Defendant conditionally plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens. In this case, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, the officer's testimony provided sufficient support for the reliability of the database where the officer explained the process for inputting license plate information, described how records in the database were kept, and noted that he was familiar with these records. View "United States v. Broca-Martinez" on Justia Law

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The court affirmed the denial of a motion for special appearance of counsel to seek the dismissal of an indictment on the ground that defendant was a fugitive from justice, because the motion was not an immediately appealable collateral order. Defendant was indicted on one count of international parental kidnapping and subsequently moved to have his attorneys specially appear to seek dismissal of the indictment. The district court denied the motion based on the fugitive disentitlement doctrine. The court dismissed defendant's interlocutory appeal for lack of jurisdiction because denial of defendant's motion for counsel to appear specially implicates neither "a right not to be tried," nor a right like that against excessive bail. The court distinguished this case from that of the Seventh Circuit's in United States v. Bokhari. The court also denied defendant's petition for writ of mandamus because he had an adequate means to obtain relief -- appearance in the district court -- and could not establish that his right to mandamus was clear and indisputable. View "United States v. Shalhoub" on Justia Law

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Competency evaluation and certification by the Department of Developmental Services and the Department of State Hospitals while detainee was awaiting transfer for treatment was permissible. The declaration and certificate of competency filed in the superior court was adequate to initiate proceedings to determine whether the detainee’s competency was restored. The detainee had been found incompetent to stand trial for murder and other charges and had been in county jail, awaiting transfer to a secure treatment facility, for about four months when the court noted conflicting opinions about whether he was feigning symptoms and permitted evaluation by the medical director of the Department of State Hospitals and a Department of Development Services psychiatrist. They gave opinions that the detainee was malingering and potentially violent. The superior court scheduled a competency hearing. The court of appeal rejected the detainee’s petition to vacate that trial and order that he be placed for evaluation and treatment, stating that the statutory scheme surrounding competency determinations envisions the speedy attainment of mental competence and vests responsibility for competency certification in state mental health officials. View "Carr v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The Seventh Circuit affirmed denial (without an evidentiary hearing) of a petition under 28 U.S.C. 2255, which had claimed that Spiller’s counsel was constitutionally ineffective during the plea-bargaining process after Spiller was charged with two counts of distributing a controlled substance 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1), and one count of selling a firearm to a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(d)(1). The government had filed a notice, under 21 U.S.C. 851, that it would seek an enhanced mandatory minimum sentence based on Spiller’s three prior drug felonies. The government had offered an agreement that, it conceded, did “not offer a whole lot beyond a blind plea.” Spiller executed a blind plea. With a Guidelines range of 262-327 months, Spiller was sentenced to 240 months; the Seventh Circuit affirmed. In rejecting the ineffective assistance claim, the Seventh Circuit noted that his attorney reviewed Spiller’s plea options, specifically inquired of the government whether there were differences, examined the government’s response, and suggested that Spiller plead blindly, reserving the right to challenge the government’s Guidelines calculation, a right he would have sacrificed under the government’s proposal. The record was sufficient to explain counsel’s decision as strategic, thereby eliminating the need for an evidentiary hearing. View "Spiller v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Third Circuit affirmed denial of a sentencing reduction while rejecting the government’s “novel” challenge to its jurisdiction. The court concluded that the denial was a final order under 28 U.S.C. 1291 and that 18 U.S.C. 3742(a)(1)does not bar review for reasonableness. In 2012, Rodriguez pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, and conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking, 18 U.S.C. 924(o). The drug quantity was more than 15 and less than 50 kilograms of cocaine. Rodriguez was also responsible for multiple drug-related robberies. His sentencing range was 120-150 months; he was sentenced to 123 months’ imprisonment. In 2016, Rodriguez sought a sentencing reduction under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(2), based on Amendment 782 of the Sentencing Guidelines, which retroactively reduced by two the offense levels for drug quantities that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. The district court found Rodriguez eligible for an Amendment 782 sentencing reduction, but denied relief in the exercise of its discretion, stating that Rodriguez had engaged in “an unyielding and escalating pattern of drug-related and violent behavior which has been undeterred by prior and substantial terms of imprisonment.” The courts rejected an argument that the sentence was substantively unreasonable, based on the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors. View "United States v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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After a jury trial, Appellant was convicted of felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult. On appeal, Appellant argued, inter alia, that the State did not present sufficient evidence to prove that the victim was a vulnerable adult. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the State presented sufficient evidence for the jury to find that the victim was a vulnerable adult as defined by statute; and (2) as regarding the jury instructions on the mental element required for conviction of felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult, the district court’s failure to edit the definition of exploitation to include only the intentional mental element did not prejudice Appellant. View "Blevins v. State" on Justia Law

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Defendant was charged with obstructing an officer. The State Public Defender (SPD) appointed a lawyer. Thereafter, three appointed attorneys withdrew in rapid succession. The circuit court determined that Defendant had forfeited his right to appointed counsel, and the SPD denied Defendant’s request for a fourth attorney. Defendant represented himself at the one-day trial, and the jury found him guilty of obstruction. The court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) right-to-counsel warnings in forfeiture cases and the procedures suggested by the dissent in State v. Cummings are strongly recommended but not required; and (2) after applying the standard enunciated in State v. Cummings to this case, it is clear that Defendant forfeited his constitutional right to counsel by engaging in voluntary and deliberate conduct that frustrated the progression of his case and interfered with the proper administration of justice. View "State v. Suriano" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, convicted of murder and sentenced to death, sought post-conviction relief in state court under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (RJA), N.C. Gen. Stat. 15A-2010 to 2012. The state trial court awarded relief under the RJA and reduced petitioners' sentences to life imprisonment. The State appealed and the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated, remanding for additional RJA proceedings. Petitioners filed suit under 28 U.S.C. 2241 in federal court, arguing that a second RJA proceeding would violate their rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The district court abstained from exercising federal jurisdiction pursuant to Younger v. Harris, and alternatively held that petitioners failed to exhaust their state remedies. The court affirmed, concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion by deciding to abstain because the basic requirements for Younger abstention were present in this case and petitioners failed to make a showing of extraordinary circumstances. The court rejected petitioners' claims to the contrary and affirmed the judgment. View "Robinson v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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After a jury convicted Lisa Jo Chamberlin of two counts of capital murder and sentenced her to death, the district court granted habeas relief on the ground that the state court erred in finding that there was no racial exclusion of jurors at her trial. Chamberlin, a white defendant, had challenged the exclusion of black jurors. The court affirmed the district court's judgment on the ground that the Mississippi court's decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts under 18 U.S.C. 2254(d)(2). In this case, the court explained that clear and convincing evidence, including more damning comparative juror analysis than existed in Miller-El v. Dretke or Reed v. Quarterman, rebuts the state court's finding of no discrimination. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Chamberlin v. Fisher, Commissioner" on Justia Law