Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

by
The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's consecutive 24-month sentences for violating the terms of his supervised release. Defendant argued that the district court clearly gave significant weight to an improper factor—the need to promote respect for the law—because the district court "cited only this one reason when explaining its decision to impose two consecutive sentences" fifteen months above the high end of the guideline range.The court concluded that the district court's reliance on defendant's absconding in pronouncing sentence was not itself plain error. The court explained that the district court's passing reference to defendant's lack of respect for the law does not make it plain that the district court impermissibly used defendant's history of absconding. Furthermore, the court concluded that the district court's failure to consider defendant's first alleged self-surrender does not warrant reversal. Nor does the upward variance from the guidelines call into doubt the reasonableness of the sentence. View "United States v. Cano" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that Georgia's lethal injection protocol, as applied to his unique medical situation, violates the Eighth Amendment and that the firing squad is a readily available alternative. At issue was whether a method-of-execution claim that would have the necessary effect of preventing the prisoner's execution should be brought as a civil rights action under section 1983, or as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2254.The Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court's order dismissing the complaint as untimely and held that a section 1983 claim for relief that would prevent a state from executing a prisoner under present law must be reconstrued as a habeas petition. Because plaintiff's requested relief would prevent the State from executing him, implying the invalidity of his death sentence, it is not cognizable under section 1983 and must be brought in a habeas petition. Furthermore, because the petition is second or successive, the court vacated and remanded with instructions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. In this case, plaintiff did not move this court for permission to file his petition and thus the district court lacked jurisdiction. View "Nance v. Commissioner, Georgia Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

by
Defendant-Appellants Guillermo Martinez-Torres and Jesus Gomez-Arzate entered conditional pleas of guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, reserving a right to appeal the district court’s denial of their motions to suppress physical evidence and statements made during a traffic stop. Each was sentenced to 63 months' imprisonment and five years of supervised release. On appeal, they contend that their initial traffic stop was invalid, the resulting detention was unlawfully extended and without valid consent, and the deputies’ search of their car exceeded the scope of consent. After review of the trial court record, the Tenth Circuit found no reversible error and affirmed. View "United States v. Gomez-Arzate" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of defendants' motions to reduce their sentences under the First Step Act and reduce their sentences to time served. In these consolidated appeals, defendants were convicted of robberies and accompanying firearms violations under 18 U.S.C. 924(c).The court concluded that the district courts appropriately exercised the discretion conferred by Congress and cabined by the statutory requirements of 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A). The court saw no error in the district courts' reliance on the length of defendants' sentences, and the dramatic degree to which they exceed what Congress now deems appropriate, in finding "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for potential sentence reductions. In this case, the district courts took seriously the requirement that they conduct individualized inquiries, basing relief not only on the First Step Act's change to sentencing law under section 924(c) but also on such factors as defendants' relative youth at the time of their offenses, their post-sentencing conduct and rehabilitation, and the very substantial terms of imprisonment they already served. The court concluded that these individualized determinations were neither inconsistent with any "applicable" Sentencing Commission guidance nor tantamount to wholesale retroactive application of the First Step Act's amendments to section 924(c). View "United States v. McCoy" on Justia Law

by
Ayon-Brito was prosecuted and convicted in the Eastern District of Virginia of reentering the U.S. without permission after having been removed, 8 U.S.C. 1326(a). The district court had denied his pretrial motion to dismiss for improper venue. Ayon-Brito argued that although the indictment alleged that he was first “encountered” after his reentry by officers in Virginia, it also alleged, as an element of the offense, that he was “found” in the Middle District of Pennsylvania where he was first accurately identified. He argued that the crime charged was committed in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, so that venue was appropriate only there; 8 U.S.C. 1329 establishes venue for a section 1326 violation in the district where the violation “occurred.”The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss. The violation of 1326(a) was a continuing offense that began when he reentered the U.S. and continued wherever he was present until he was found and arrested. Because “found” does not itself refer to an act or conduct of the defendant, it does not describe a conduct element; the crime at issue is “being in” the U.S. If Ayon-Brito believed that he faced prejudice or inconvenience, he could have sought a transfer; he did not. He elected a bench trial in Virginia and was dealt with fairly. View "United States v. Ayon-Brito" on Justia Law

by
Varner’was having an alcoholic drink and lunch at a restaurant. Deputy Roane approached and requested that he leave the restaurant with him. Varner complied. Roane had previously arrested Varner on drug charges. Outside, Roane asked Varner to empty his pockets. Finding nothing, Roane patted Varner down. No incriminating items were found. Roane asked him to submit to a breath test. Varner stated he would not be driving and refused. K-9 officer Johnson then approached Varner’s car with a drug-sniffing dog, Zeke. Zeke and Johnson had successfully completed Police Narcotic Detection Training. Zeke gave a positive alert. Varner alleges that Johnson manufactured this alert by smacking the side of his car and that Zeke displayed erratic behavior. Johnson contradicted those assertions. No drugs were found in the car.Varner sought damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The court dismissed Varner’s claim that he had been unlawfully seized during the pat-down, reasoning that Varner had failed to demonstrate the encounter was anything but consensual. After discovery, the court granted Roane summary judgment on the remaining Fourth Amendment claim, finding no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Johnson had manufactured Zeke’s alert. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Roane did not use or threaten force, did not restrain Varner, and did not make any misrepresentation as to a warrant. There is nothing to suggest a conspiracy to manipulate Zeke’s behavior. View "Varner v. Roane" on Justia Law

by
Ka was convicted of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking crime. While serving five years of supervised release, he tested positive for drug use three times. Ka stated, in the presence of his probation officer, Padilla, and her partner, that he had been helping friends sell drugs to make money. Padilla examined Ka’s phone, finding text messages related to drug sales. Ka then signed a statement admitting to selling marijuana and cocaine with an averment that “[t]hese are my own words and [are] given voluntarily.” Ka did not invoke his right against self-incrimination. Padilla petitioned to revoke Ka’s supervised release, 18 U.S.C. 3583(e).Ka moved to suppress statements he had made to Padilla concerning his possession and sale of drugs, citing the Fifth Amendment and arguing that the “penalty exception” applied to his situation. His terms of supervision required him to “answer truthfully all inquiries by the probation officer and follow the instructions of the probation officer” so he would have been penalized for any assertion of his Fifth Amendment privilege. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of Ka’s motion to suppress, having previously held that the use of compelled, self-incriminating statements in a supervised release revocation hearing does not violate the Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment. View "United States v. Ka" on Justia Law

by
Recently, in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191, 2194 (2019), the Supreme Court clarified that a domestic-violence misdemeanant does not violate the prohibition on firearm possession if he does not know he is a domestic violence misdemeanant at the time he possesses a gun.The Eleventh Circuit concluded that a person knows he is a domestic violence misdemeanant, for Rehaif purposes, if he knows all the following: (1) that he was convicted of a misdemeanor crime; (2) that to be convicted of that crime, he must have engaged in at least "the slightest offensive touching;" United States v. Castleman, 572 U.S. 157, 163 (2014), and (3) that the victim of his misdemeanor crime was, as relevant here, his wife. In this case, the record establishes that defendant knew all of these things at the time he was found in possession of a gun. Therefore, the court rejected defendant's challenge to his conviction for being a domestic-violence misdemeanant while possessing a firearm and affirmed the conviction. The court also found no merit in defendant's equal protection and Commerce Clause arguments. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

by
Five defendants appealed their convictions for conspiracy to distribute controlled substances under 21 U.S.C. 846 and 841. The en banc court concluded that the jury instruction in this case was erroneous, clarifying the requirements for conspiracy under section 846 and the facts that trigger the penalties under section 841(b)(1)(A)–(B).The en banc court explained that to convict defendants of conspiracy under section 846 in this case, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant agreed with another person that some member of the conspiracy would commit a section 841(a) offense, and that each defendant had the requisite intent necessary for a section 841(a) conviction. The en banc court further explained that a defendant convicted of conspiracy under section 846 is subject to a penalty under section 841(b)(1)(A)–(B) if the government has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the underlying section 841(a)(1) offense involved the drug type and quantity set forth in section 841(b)(1)(A)–(B). The government does not have to prove that the defendant had any knowledge or intent with respect to those facts. The en banc court clarified that a conviction under section 846 does not require proof of a level of criminal intent greater than that required for the underlying offense merely because it is a conspiracy conviction. The en banc court overruled United States v. Becerra, 992 F.2d 960 (9th Cir. 1993), and its progeny to the extent they depart from this decision.In this case, the erroneous jury instructions could amount to harmless error if there was overwhelming evidence that each defendant entered into an agreement involving the requisite drug type and quantity. Given the numerous issues raised on appeal and the extensive record from the ten-day jury trial, the en banc court found it appropriate to return this case to the three-judge panel to reconsider both the harmless error issue and the balance of the issues raised by the parties in light of this opinion, and to enter an appropriate judgment. View "United States v. Collazo" on Justia Law

by
Defendant Christina Fay appealed her convictions on seventeen counts of cruelty to animals. The Wolfeboro Police Department executed a search warrant at defendant’s residence in June 2017 with the aid of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and others, pursuant to which over seventy Great Danes were seized. One of defendant's employees informed the police that there were seventy-eight dogs living at the residence. She stated that the dogs rarely went outside and were not housebroken, and that the residence was covered in animal waste. She reported that the dogs only received water when they were let outside, but that it was not uncommon for the dogs to remain inside for an entire weekend. She also stated that the dogs were fed spoiled meat, and that many vomited often, were underweight, and had liquid stool. In addition, the employee stated that there were riding crops located throughout the house to break up fights among the dogs, and that one dog would bite anyone other than defendant who got near it. Because police did not have resources to execute a search warrant and seizing seventy-eight dogs, HSUS was called to assist in the search. Every member of the police department, the Wolfeboro Fire Department, members of the ambulance team, employees from other town agencies, and staff from HSUS and the Pope Memorial SPCA, executed the warrant on June 16, 2017. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the search, arguing, among other things, that HSUS’s involvement violated her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. After a hearing, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion. Defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress. Finding no reversible error, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. View "New Hampshire v. Fay" on Justia Law