Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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In a previous appeal, the Court of Appeal affirmed defendant Shaun Shaw’s convictions for burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, and making a criminal threat, but remanded to allow the trial court to exercise its new authority pursuant to Senate Bill No. 1393 (Senate Bill 1393) (Stats. 2018, ch. 1013) to consider striking Shaw’s five-year enhancement for his serious prior felony conviction. At resentencing, the trial court again imposed the enhancement. Shaw challenged that decision and further arged that he was again entitled to resentencing, this time in light of Senate Bill No. 136 (Senate Bill 136) (Stats. 2019, ch. 590). After review, the Court of Appeal found no abuse of discretion in the decision not to strike the five-year enhancement imposed under section 667(a)(1). Nevertheless, resentencing was necessary to permit the trial court to strike the prison priors pursuant to recently enacted Senate Bill 136. View "California v. Shaw" on Justia Law

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Fletcher was convicted of importuning a minor under Ohio law. Under the terms of his probation, Fletcher “[a]greed to a search without warrant of [his] person, [his] motor vehicle or [his] place of residence by a Probation Officer at any time.” During a routine visit, his probation officer noticed that Fletcher had two phones. The officer stated that he was going to search the phones and observed that Fletcher responded nervously and began looking through one of them. Fletcher initially resisted but ultimately unlocked the phone. The officer, searching through the phone, saw an image of child pornography. Detective Carter executed a warrant to search the phone, which contained child pornography that had been downloaded from the internet and that had been filmed by the phone itself. Carter forwarded the videos filmed on the phone to federal agents. For the downloaded child pornography, Fletcher pled guilty in state court, to pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor. For the videos filmed on the phone, Fletcher was charged in federal court with conspiracy to produce child pornography and production of child pornography. His motion to suppress the evidence recovered from his cell phone was denied. Fletcher was sentenced to 35 years in prison, to run concurrently with his 10-year state sentence.The Sixth Circuit reversed. The probation officer did not have reasonable suspicion to search Fletcher’s cell phone and Fletcher’s probation agreement did not authorize the search. View "United States v. Fletcher" on Justia Law

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Ruffin was convicted for a drug-trafficking scheme. The court calculated Ruffin’s guidelines range as 30 years’ to life imprisonment. Ruffin had a blood disorder that had caused him to suffer four strokes. He regularly used a wheelchair due to paralysis on his left side. Ruffin suffers from heart problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and blood clots. When balancing the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a), the court expressed concern over Ruffin’s witness-tampering and prior convictions.Ruffin has served 10 years of his 25-year sentence. In May 2020, Ruffin sought early “compassionate release” under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), claiming that his health conditions exacerbate the risks from COVID-19, creating “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for relief. The court initially noted that the Sentencing Commission defined “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for relief to cover only medical conditions that substantially diminish a defendant’s ability to provide “self-care” in prison, U.S.S.G. 1B1.13 cmt. n.1(A)(ii). Next, the court noted that the Commission’s guidance required Ruffin to show that, if released, he would not be a “danger” to the community, section 1B1.13(2), and noted his extensive criminal record. Lastly, the court held that section 3553(a)'s factors counseled against reducing the sentence. Ruffin argued that, after the First Step Act, courts may find extraordinary and compelling reasons beyond those listed in the commentary.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. Even when extraordinary and compelling reasons exist, the statute gives courts discretion to deny relief under a balancing of section 3553(a)'s sentencing factors. The district court denied relief not just because no extraordinary and compelling reasons existed, but also because those factors weighed against his release, and did not abuse its discretion when balancing those factors. View "United States v. Ruffin" on Justia Law

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On remand from the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit filed an amended opinion affirming defendant's convictions for being a felon in possession of a firearm, and an order denying a petition for panel rehearing and denying on behalf of the court a petition for rehearing en banc.The panel reaffirmed its conclusion that Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b)'s plain error standard governs here. The panel explained that defendant's argument is best understood not as a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, but rather as a claim that the district court applied the wrong legal standard in assessing his guilt—specifically, by omitting the knowledge-of-status element now required under Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), which was issued after the panel issued its original opinion in this case. Here, the government conceded that the first two prongs of plain error are met: the district court erred by not requiring the government to prove defendant's knowledge of his status as a convicted felon, and the error is clear following Rehaif. The panel also assumed without deciding that the error affected defendant's substantial rights.The panel stated that it is appropriate in this case to review the entire record on appeal—not just the record adduced at trial—in assessing whether defendants have satisfied the fourth prong of plain error review. Given the overwhelming and uncontroverted nature of the evidence, defendant cannot show that refusing to correct the district court's error would result in a miscarriage of justice. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Henry Jones appealed the denial of his petition to vacate his murder conviction under Penal Code section 1170.95, the resentencing provision of Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) In 2000, Jones was convicted of attempted murder and first degree felony murder, and the jury also found true the robbery-murder special circumstance, which authorized a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for “a major participant” in a felony murder who acted with “reckless indifference to human life.” The trial court summarily denied Jones’s section 1170.95 petition on groundd that his special circumstance finding rendered him ineligible for relief as a matter of law. On appeal, Jones argued the trial court erred by denying his petition without the benefit of briefing from his counsel. He argued he could demonstrate a prima facie case for relief because his special circumstance finding no longer supported a felony-murder conviction after the California Supreme Court’s decisions in California v. Banks, 61 Cal.4th 788 (2015) and California v. Clark, 63 Cal.4th 522 (2016), which clarified the meaning of “major participant” and “reckless indifference to human life.” California appellate courts have split over whether such a pre-Banks/Clark special circumstance finding rendered a petitioner ineligible for relief under section 1170.95 as a matter of law. The Court of Appeal agreed with the line of decisions in California v. Gomez, 52 Cal.App.5th 1 (2020) and California v. Galvan, 52 Cal.App.5th 1134 (2020), which held that a petitioner with a pre-Banks/Clark finding was ineligible for relief under section 1170.95 as a matter of law. The Court therefore affirmed. View "California v. Jones" on Justia Law

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Jeffrey Barton was convicted by jury on five counts of forcible oral copulation, and one count of forcible sodomy. The jury reached its verdict only after the trial court discharged a holdout juror (Juror No. 12), after it found she was refusing to deliberate. Thereafter, the trial court sentenced Barton to a prison term of 48 years. Barton appealed, contending, inter alia, the trial court abused its discretion by discharging Juror No. 12 on the basis that she was refusing to deliberate. Barton contended the other jurors’ testimony demonstrated only that Juror No. 12 disagreed with the other jurors, who found her to be unfriendly and unable to offer persuasive explanations for her opinion, not that she was unable or unwilling to deliberate. To this, the Court of Appeal agreed: under the heightened standard of review that applies to a trial court’s decision to discharge a holdout juror for refusing to deliberate, the Court concluded the trial court’s decision to discharge Juror No. 12 was not manifestly supported by evidence. Accordingly, the Court did not address Barton’s other contentions on appeal, other than his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, and reversed the judgment. View "California v. Barton" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeals held that the evidence in this case was sufficient to support Defendant's convictions for witness tampering and obstruction of justice where Defendant married a witness for the State with the corrupt intent of having her invoke the spousal testimonial privilege at his upcoming murder trial.The evidence indicated that Defendant married a potential witness for the State in order to have the witness invoke the spousal testimonial privilege at his murder trial. Before trial, the circuit court granted the State's motion to preclude the witness from invoking the spousal testimonial privilege. A jury subsequently found Defendant guilty of witness tampering and obstruction of justice. The Court of Special Appeals reversed, concluding that the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions because State failed to prove the "corrupt means" element of the convictions. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding (1) when a person marries a potential State witness with the intent to enable the witness to invoke the spousal testimonial privilege at a criminal proceeding the evidence is sufficient to support convictions for witness tampering and obstruction of justice; and (2) Defendant's conviction for witness tampering did not merge for sentencing purposes with his obstruction of justice conviction. View "State v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm as a convicted felon. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting defendant's 2005 conviction for possessing a firearm as a felon where the conviction was sufficiently similar and not too remote in time, it went to the issue of proving knowledge and intent, and it did not unfairly prejudice defendant.The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant's objections to the prosecution's closing arguments. In this case, the prosecutor's remarks were invited by defense counsel at closing and, even assuming the remarks were improper, defendant failed to show prejudice. View "United States v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed defendants' convictions for conspiring to violate, and of knowingly and willfully violating, the False Statements Act. Defendants' convictions stemmed from their ownership and operation of a second-tier subcontractor on a project to construct a building for a federal agency where they submitted to the agency certified payroll forms containing false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and entries within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. 1001(a)(3).The court held that the payroll forms containing the false statements were made or used in a matter within the jurisdiction of the federal agency. The court also held that the false statements were material. Therefore, the district court did not err in denying the renewed motion for a judgment of acquittal on materiality grounds. However, the court held that the district court, in determining defendants' guidelines ranges, failed to properly calculate the loss caused by their crimes. In this case, the district court erroneously applied the USSG 2B1.1(b)(1)(J) enhancement based on gain even though there was no loss. Accordingly, the court vacated defendants' sentences and remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Bazantes" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the judgment of the single justice of the Court denying Petitioner's petition pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3, holding that the single justice did not err or abuse his discretion in denying relief.Petitioner was indicted on several counts of rape and one count of strangulation or suffocation. Petitioner was committed for observation to Bridgewater State Hospital for a determination whether he was competent to stand trial. Petitioner was found incompetent to stand trial and committed to the hospital pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 123, 16. Petitioner, who remains in the hospital, filed a Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3 petition claiming, among other things, that his constitutional rights had been violated. The single justice denied the petition without a hearing. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding that Petitioner had an adequate alternative remedy and that his claims did not present a situation warranting extraordinary superintendence relief pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, 3. View "Ardaneh v. Commonwealth" on Justia Law