Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Defendants may not use a writ of error coram nobis to challenge a forfeiture judgment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of relief after determining that defendants had standing to bring their challenge. The court held that, even assuming that Honeycutt v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1626, 1630 (2017), -- which held that a different forfeiture statute does not permit joint-and-several liability -- applies retroactively and that coram nobis may be used, defendants were not entitled to relief because their failure to challenge their forfeiture judgments on direct appeal means they cannot challenge them now. As a non-jurisdictional error, the court stated that defendants needed to raise their Honeycutt claims on direct appeal to avoid procedural default. In this case, defendants failed to establish cause for not raising their claims on direct appeal, and defendants also failed to establish prejudice. View "United States v. Bane" on Justia Law

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Melvin pled guilty to possessing with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine. The probation office prepared a presentence investigation report (PSR) and filed it with the court electronically. Melvin’s crime carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison followed by 10 years of supervised release. The probation office mailed Melvin’s attorney a letter, stating that the PSR had been electronically filed and that, “Pursuant to Judge Myerscough’s directive, a copy of the report has not been provided to the defendant and you should not provide a copy to them. You are responsible for reviewing the report with Mr. Melvin.” Melvin’s attorney reviewed the PSR with Melvin without giving the PSR to Melvin. Melvin’s attorney's objections to the PSR were resolved. At his sentencing hearing, Melvin asked if he could get a copy of the PSR. Judge Myerscough denied Melvin’s request, explaining that “[t]here is confidential information ... that would be harmful” to Melvin and his family. The district court sentenced Melvin to 15 years in prison and 10 years of supervised release. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The district court did not violate 18 U.S.C. 3552(d), which only requires “disclosure,” but did violate Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32(e)(2) by denying Melvin a copy of his PSR but the error was harmless. Melvin’s sentence could not be lower if he were resentenced. View "United States v. Melvin" on Justia Law

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Sands pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Sands claimed to have found the gun and denied defacing the serial number. The district court applied a four-level sentence enhancement for possessing a firearm with an “altered or obliterated serial number” pursuant to USSG 2K2.1(b)(4)(B) because the firearm’s serial number was, although readable, defaced with scratches in three separate locations. The Sixth Circuit vacated the sentence, agreeing with several other circuits “that a firearm’s serial number is ‘altered or obliterated’ when it is materially changed in a way that makes accurate information less accessible.” A serial number that has been defaced but is still visible to the naked eye is not “altered or obliterated” under section 2K2.1(b)(4)(B). View "United States v. Sands" on Justia Law

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FBI agents seized a computer server that hosted a child-pornography website and observed that one user, accessed 107 “threads” in five days. The FBI traced the IP address to Demma’s residence, executed a search warrant and seized electronic devices, finding more than 3,600 images and 230 videos; many depicted adult men raping prepubescent girls. Demma pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography, 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4)(B); (b)(2). The probation officer computed a Guidelines range of 78-97 months. Demma's sentencing memorandum described Demma’s lack of criminal history and that Demma served honorably in the Army for over five years and was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD. One forensic psychologist asserted that Demma’s use of child pornography “is directly resultant from experiencing the ravages of war as this impacts children.” The court sentenced Demma to one day, with 10 years of supervised release and payment of $45,000 in restitution. The court’s cited Demma’s PTSD diagnosis, his decision to voluntarily seek treatment after his arrest, his low risk of reoffending, the potentially detrimental effect of imprisonment on Demma’s treatment, and Demma’s low risk for committing a “contact offense.” The Sixth Circuit vacated the sentence. Any policy disagreement with the Guidelines based on the similarity of the enhancements does not justify the extent of this downward variance. In focusing on the role of Demma’s military service, the district court cast Demma as the victim. The court also unreasonably concluded that Demma’s sophisticated and extensive access to child pornography somehow made him less culpable than “someone who simply allowed his curiosity to get the better of him.” View "United States v. Demma" on Justia Law

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LaBrec, an inmate at a maximum-security institution, with a history that included prior assaults on inmates and staff, was transferred to the Restricted Housing Unit and was placed in a cell with McNeely, who was in the Unit following an assault on his prior cellmate. LaBrec was designated a “pair with care” inmate; Psychological Services were supposed to be consulted prior to assigning a cellmate. LaBrec informed the staff repeatedly of that status and was allowed to see Dr. Persike in Psychological Services. LaBrec informed Persike that McNeely was talking about beating up his last cellmate and that LaBrec did not feel safe with McNeely. LaBrec continued to ask to be moved, complaining did not feel safe. At one point he had an anxiety attack and began crying and asking for help. LaBrec was not reassigned. Three days after the cell assignment, McNeely stabbed LaBrec with a pen behind his ear, in the back, and in his shoulder. The district court rejected LaBrec’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 on summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed with respect to some defendants who were unaware of surrounding circumstances that could render plausible LaBrec’s claim of a threat to his safety. The court reversed with respect to others; a jury could reasonably infer that those defendants possessed a subjective awareness of a serious risk to LaBrec and failed to take the minimal, reasonable action of inquiring further and investigating the situation. View "Labrec v. Walker" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit held that defendant's prior conviction for assaulting with intent to rob, steal, or purloin a postal employee and placing their life in jeopardy by use of a dangerous weapon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2114(a), constitutes a "crime of violence" under 18 U.S.C. 924(c)'s force clause. The court affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence, holding that the aggravated offense contained in the second clause of section 2114(a) may apply to any of the basic offenses listed in the first clause of the statute, including assault with intent to rob, steal, or purloin. The court also held that the aggravated offense contained in section 2114(a), which requires that the defendant wound or put the victim's life in jeopardy by use of a dangerous weapon during the commission of the basic offense, is categorically a crime of violence under the force clause of section 924(c)(3)(A). View "United States v. Bryant" on Justia Law

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Before the Alaska Supreme Court in this case was a constitutional claim arising from the application of a juvenile jurisdiction waiver statute. A minor subject to the statutory provision did not testify at his waiver hearing and did not overcome the presumption enumerated in the statute; the superior court granted the State’s waiver petition. The minor appealed, contending the statutory rebuttable presumption and shifted burden of proof violated his constitutional right against self-incrimination and his constitutional due process rights. The Supreme Court explained that fundamental fairness required adopting an exclusionary rule when a minor bears the burden of rebutting the statutory presumption of being unamenable to treatment in the juvenile justice system: the minor’s testimonial evidence at the waiver hearing cannot be used as substantive evidence over the minor’s objection at any subsequent juvenile adjudication or adult criminal proceedings. View "C.D., a Minor v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed his conviction and sentence for assault with a dangerous weapon, assault resulting in serious bodily injury; and discharge of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's evidentiary rulings where the district court's admission of the challenged 911 call did not violate defendant's confrontation right because the call was not testimonial in nature; the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the call over defendant's Federal Rule of Evidence 403 objection; and the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that the probative value of the challenged 911 call was not substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice. Furthermore, any prejudice stemming from the reference to the victim owing defendant money for marijuana did not substantially outweigh the value of the testimony as part of the res gestae of the crime. The court also held that there was no error in denying defendant's proposed limiting instruction, and there was no error in imposing two of the supervised release conditions. However, the court vacated the district court's condition prohibiting defendant from consuming alcohol or visiting establishments that primarily serve alcohol. In this case, the court failed to explain its basis for the condition, defendant's offense did not involve alcohol, and the record did not show that he was alcohol or drug dependent. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded. View "United States v. Robertson" on Justia Law

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Following a jury trial, defendant Venessa Sarkisian-Kennedy was convicted of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, second offense (DUI-2), and criminal refusal of an evidentiary breath test (refusal). She appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in: (1) admitting, subject to what she contended was an ineffective limiting instruction) the results of a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test offered by the State absent scientific, foundational testimony from an expert witness; and (2) allowing the State to present evidence of her refusal to consent to a preliminary breath test (PBT) on the theory that it was relevant to consciousness of guilt. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concurred with defendant’s first contention, but not the second. The Court therefore reversed and remanded the refusal conviction and affirmed the DUI-2 conviction. View "Vermont v. Sarkisian-Kennedy" on Justia Law

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In 2013, Moore was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon (720 ILCS 5/24-1.1(a) stemming from a traffic stop in Joliet. His prior felony was a 1990 murder conviction. The appellate court affirmed, rejecting an argument that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to stipulate to Moore’s felon status, thereby allowing the jury to consider highly prejudicial evidence that Moore’s prior conviction was for murder. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed and remanded. This type of prior conviction evidence generally has little probative value and creates a high risk of unfair prejudice to the defendant. The jury was faced with two plausible versions of events that depended on witness credibility. The evidence was closely balanced, so informing the jurors that the defendant was previously convicted of murder made Deputy Hannon’s version more plausible and tipped the scales against Moore. There was a reasonable probability of a different result, had defense counsel prevented the jury from being informed of the nature of the prior felony conviction. There was sufficient evidence that the jury could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, so double jeopardy does not preclude a new trial. View "People v. Moore" on Justia Law