Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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The First Circuit affirmed Defendants' convictions for conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), conspiracy to possess and distribute narcotics, use and carry of a firearm in relation to a drug-trafficking crime, and related offenses, holding that no prejudicial error occurred in the proceedings below. Defendants in this case were five members of La Rompe ONU, one of the largest and most violent of Puerto Rico's street gangs. The First Circuit affirmed Defendants' convictions, holding (1) the evidence was sufficient to support the RICO-conspiracy, drug-conspiracy, and firearms convictions; (2) the trial court did not commit reversible error by admitting out-of-court statements about a murder-by-choking incident; (3) Defendants failed to show that the trial judge's general RICO-conspiracy instructions resulted in a miscarriage of justice; and (4) the two sentences challenged on appeal were reasonable. View "United States v. Rodriguez-Torres" on Justia Law

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Gresham is serving a 75-year sentence in a Marquette, Michigan state prison. He filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action against prison employees, alleging that they improperly forced him to take antipsychotic medication. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that Gresham must pay a $400 filing fee (28 U.S.C. 1914) before proceeding. The right to proceed “in forma pauperis” and avoid filing fees may be removed for prisoner plaintiffs who abuse the privilege. Prisoners become ineligible to file free lawsuits if the courts have dismissed three or more of their lawsuits as “frivolous, malicious, or [for] fail[ure] to state a claim,” 28 U.S.C. 1915(g). Gresham has at least eight baseless lawsuits. The statute frees poor prisoners from the rule if they are “under imminent danger of serious physical injury.” Gresham alleged that the forced medication caused him “chest pains, akathisia [muscular restlessness], seizures, vomiting, stomach cramps, and dizz[iness].” Those side effects did not amount to an imminent “serious physical injury.” They are typically temporary and rarely life-threatening and are not the kinds of injuries that can lead to impending death or other severe bodily harms. Gresham has not remotely alleged how his complaints could lead to such harms while he is under medical supervision. View "Gresham v. Meden" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit joined its sister circuits and held that the prison mailbox rule applies to a civilly committed person. The court remanded, sua sponte, to the district court to determine when plaintiff delivered his pro se notice of appeal to authorities at the Florida Civil Containment Center (FCCC) for mailing. In this case, plaintiff's notice of appeal was filed in the district court on April 25, 2019—beyond the 30-day deadline to appeal the district court's March 20, 2019 judgment. However, if the prison mailbox rule applies to plaintiff, his appeal may still be timely. View "Boatman v. Berreto" on Justia Law

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Defendant Adrien Stillwell was convicted by jury on one count of first degree murder, one count of second degree murder, and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. Paulson Papillon sold drugs to M.P. and to a confidential informant. Shortly thereafter, police arrested and jailed Papillon for selling drugs to the informant. After Papillon was released, and believing that M.P. was a “snitch” and responsible for his arrest, Papillon offered a bounty for M.P.’s death. Papillon subsequently met with the defendant, Nathanial Smith, and Michael Younge on multiple occasions and discussed killing M.P. Defendant and Smith met Younge at a convenience store; the trio then headed to M.P.’s apartment building, where defendant shot and killed M.P. Shortly thereafter, a neighbor, who had heard “loud bangs” and her trash barrel falling over, found a gun when picking up the trash barrel. Forensic testing established that a bullet recovered from the victim’s body had been fired from the gun. A New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory employee subsequently swabbed the gun for DNA. Police executed a body warrant on defendant at the police department in Manchester, and took a buccal swab of the inside of his mouth for use as a “known sample” for comparison to other evidence. Defendant waived his Miranda rights and spoke with police for approximately forty-five minutes in a recorded interview. After his arrest, defendant shared a jail cell with Scott Collier, and told Collier he had killed M.P., sharing details as to what happened that had not been included in news reports. During a second interview with police, defendant again denied being involved with M.P.’s murder, and denied knowing Papillon, Smith, or Younge. Defendant, Younge, Smith, and Papillon were subsequently indicted for first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. On appeal, defendant argued the superior court erred by: (1) allowing an expert to testify in violation of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (2) admitting the out-of-court statements of an unavailable witness under the statement against penal interest exception to the hearsay rule; and (3) failing to take sua sponte action to address the allegedly improper statements made by the prosecutor during the State’s closing argument. Finding no reversible error, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed defendant’s conviction. View "New Hampshire v. Stillwell" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, holding that there was no error in the trial court's evidentiary rulings. On appeal, Defendant argued that the trial court erred in admitting testimony implicating him in the murder under the coconspirator exception to the hearsay rule and improperly admitted certain state of mind evidence. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding (1) even if the trial court incorrectly admitted the evidence under the coconspirator hearsay exception, the jury's verdict wasn't substantially affected by any such error; and (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the victim's state of mind was relevant as evidence of the deteriorating nature of his relationship with Defendant's gang from which the jury could reasonably infer Defendant's motive to kill him. View "State v. Ayala" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court finding Defendant guilty of felony sexual assault, holding that counsel was ineffective when he failed to object to an instruction that a person under the age of sixteen is incapable of consent as a matter of law because the age of consent for sexual assault is fourteen years old. During trial, the court instructed the jury, without differentiating between the charged offenses of sexual intercourse without consent and sexual assault, that a person under the age of sixteen is incapable of consent as a matter of law. The victim in this case was fourteen years old at the time of the alleged offense. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that the instruction allowed the jury to convict Defendant solely on evidence of the victim's age, and had trial counsel offered and argued a separate sexual assault "without consent" instruction, the result may have been different. View "State v. Resh" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed defendant's 1440 month sentence after he was convicted of five counts relating to the production and possession of child pornography. The court held that the district court did not procedurally err when it calculated defendant's guidelines sentence as close to indefinite incarceration as the law allowed. The court also held that defendant's sentence was not substantively unreasonable, because the district court thoroughly discussed defendant's particularly heinous conduct and direct participation in the creation of child pornography, his breach of public trust as a police officer, and his total failure to take responsibility for his actions. View "United States v. Kirby" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Ricky Lee Cobbs was convicted of first degree murder, predicated on felony murder based on attempted robbery, and murder as the natural and probable consequence of assault and battery. Petitioner contended the second theory was made invalid under California v. Chiu, 59 Cal.4th 155 (2014) and In re Martinez, 3 Cal.5th 1216 (2017), and both theories were invalid following changes enacted under Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) (Stats. 2018, ch. 1015, sec. 2 (SB 1437).) He contended the Court of Appeal should vacate his conviction and direct the trial court to conduct further proceedings consistent with California Penal Code sections 188 and 189. The Attorney General agreed the first degree murder conviction was invalid under Chiu and Martinez, but did not address SB 1437. The Attorney General thus asserted the remedy should be that provided for in Chiu and Martinez: reverse the first degree murder conviction, and have the State the option of retrying the first degree murder count or reducing the conviction to second degree murder. The Court of Appeal agreed with the parties that the first degree murder conviction could not stand in light of Chiu and Martinez, but disagreed on the remedy. “While SB 1437 changes the law underlying both theories of guilt, it provides a procedure for those who seek retroactive application, section 1170.95. That procedure is the sole means by which a person may obtain relief for a conviction that becomes final before the effective date of SB 1437. Accordingly, we shall vacate the first degree murder conviction and order additional proceedings in the trial court.” View "In re Cobbs" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress the results of a blood test on the grounds that the blood testing was a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court agreed with defendant that there could be no implied consent to a warrantless blood draw upon threat of criminal penalty, but held that Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016) 579 U.S. ___, [136 S.Ct. 2160], did not mandate the invalidation of his actual consent. The court explained that Birchfield prohibits a court from finding implied consent where an arrestee's only choice is to consent to a warrantless blood test or be prosecuted for refusing to do so. In this case, the blood test was not defendant's only choice. Rather, defendant was given a choice of tests to choose from and the arresting officer stated that he was subject to criminal penalties only if he refused all options. Furthermore, the trial court held a hearing on the issue of actual consent and found consent to be voluntary. Finally, the court rejected defendant's contention that the Legislature's decision to amend California's implied consent law, Assembly Bill No. 2717, in response to Birchfield strongly indicated that he could not have freely and voluntarily consented. View "People v. Nzolameso" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm, holding that the district court did not err by denying his motion to suppress evidence found as a result of the search of his cell phone, seized from his rental car after a high-speed chase. In this case, the phone contained photos tying him to the firearm that was recovered from the car. As a preliminary matter, the panel held, in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Byrd v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1518, 1530 (2018), that it did not need to address the issue of whether defendant lacked standing to challenge the search before addressing defendant's Fourth Amendment claims, because such an inquiry was not jurisdictional. The panel held that the searches of both the car and the phone were lawful, because the phone was seized as part of a valid inventory search; probable cause supported the two warrants issued to search the phone; and there was a sufficient factual basis for the issuing magistrate judges to conclude, independently of the affiants' beliefs, that evidence might be found on defendant's cell phone. View "United States v. Garay" on Justia Law