Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Rodney Lewis appealed after a jury convicted him of rape by intoxication and kidnapping to commit rape. Lewis argued the trial court erred in instructing the jury on kidnapping to commit rape and insufficient evidence supported his convictions. After careful consideration, the Court of Appeal agreed there was prejudicial instructional error and reversed his kidnapping to commit rape conviction. Because there was insufficient evidence to support that conviction, Lewis could not be retried. His insufficiency of the evidence claim as to his rape by intoxication conviction was meritless. In all other respects, the Court affirmed the judgment. View "California v. Lewis" on Justia Law

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In 1991, petitioner Nokkuwa Ervin and other perpetrators committed an armed robbery of a store. During the robbery, one of the perpetrators shot and killed an innocent victim. A jury found Ervin guilty of burglary, robbery, and murder. The jury found true two sentencing allegations that Ervin personally used a firearm as to the burglary and the robbery counts. The jury found not true a sentencing allegation that Ervin personally used a firearm as to the murder count. The jury also found true two felony-murder special-circumstance allegations. The judgment was affirmed on appeal. In 2019, the California Legislature limited the scope of the felony-murder rule: if a victim is killed during a designated felony, a defendant cannot be found guilty of murder unless he was: (1) the actual killer; (2) aided and abetted the actual killer with the intent to kill; or (3) was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life. Ervin petitioned for resentencing, arguing he could no longer be convicted of murder. The trial court initially found Ervin established a prima facie basis for relief, issued an order to show cause (OSC), and set an evidentiary hearing. But the court later revoked the OSC and summarily denied the petition. The court ruled the felony-murder special-circumstance findings precluded Ervin from obtaining relief under Penal Code section 1170.95 as a matter of law. The trial court’s ruling was made prior to the California Supreme Court’s ruling in California v. Lewis, 11 Cal.5th 952 (2021), which clarified the guidelines for section 1170.95 petitions. In its de novo review, the Court of Appeal found Ervin’s section 1170.95 petition reliably met the “very low” prima facie threshold for relief. Thus, the Court reversed the trial court’s summary denial of Ervin’s section 1170.95 petition. On remand, the Court ordered the trial court to issue an OSC and to conduct an evidentiary hearing. View "California v. Ervin" on Justia Law

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Antioch police officers, responding to a call about a prowler, tried to stop a Pontiac sedan that the caller had identified. Officers in different vehicles pursued the Pontiac. At one point, an officer started to exit his vehicle with his firearm drawn. The Pontiac accelerated toward the officers, striking the driver’s door on the first vehicle so that it slammed on the officer’s ankle. The Pontiac hit the bumper on the second vehicle, causing no noticeable damage. The Pontiac sideswiped and scratched the third vehicle. After an extended chase with pursuit by a helicopter, officers apprehended the occupants of the Pontiac, including the driver (the minor).The court sustained a petition under Welfare and Institutions Code 602(a) for evasion of a peace officer while driving in willful disregard of others, deadly weapon assault on a peace officer, and force-likely assault. The court of appeal reversed in part. The punishment on the reckless evasion of police count must be stayed because it is based on the same indivisible course of conduct with the same intent and objective as the assault counts. The juvenile court must designate counts 1 and 3 as felonies or misdemeanors. The court rejected an argument that the finding on force-likely assault must be vacated because it is a lesser included offense of deadly weapon assault on a peace officer and is based on the same conduct. View "In re L.J." on Justia Law

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While serving as an inmate at West Valley Detention Center, defendant Chelsea Giddens threw a milk carton filled with urine at a deputy, hitting her in the face. The incident was recorded by one of the jail’s security cameras. Based on the video, the prosecution charged Giddens with one count of “gassing” a peace officer, an aggravated form of battery that occurs when an inmate intentionally causes “any mixture containing human excrement or other bodily fluids” to make contact with the officer’s “skin or membranes.” At trial, the prosecution played the security footage for the jury, and the deputy testified she was certain the “salty, warm” liquid that splashed into her eyes and mouth was urine. Giddens testified in her own defense and denied throwing anything at the deputy, but her attorney presented a different theory during closing statements, arguing the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the liquid was urine as it was just as likely Giddens had made a concoction of warm water and rotting food from her cell. The jury found Giddens guilty as charged. On appeal, she argued: (1) the jail violated Penal Code section 243.9’s mandatory duty to collect a sample of the suspected gassing substance and test it to determine whether it in fact contained a bodily fluid; (2) the failure to test the contents of the liquid also violated her due process rights to the disclosure of potentially exculpatory evidence; and (3) the trial judge erroneously denied her motion to dismiss the gassing charge for insufficient evidence. Finding no reversible error, the Court of Appeal affirmed Giddens' conviction. View "California v. Giddens" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that courts cannot impose imprisonment exceeding the statutory threshold for a probationary sentence and also conditions of probation, and therefore, Defendant's sentence in this case was unlawful.Defendant pled no contest to violating a temporary restraining order. The family court sentenced Defendant to 181 days in prison and ordered him to complete a domestic violence intervention program (DVI). On appeal, Defendant argued that the family court erred in sentencing him to both serve 181 days and complete DVI because imposing DVI without probation violates Haw. Rev. Stat. Stat. 706-624(2)(a). The Supreme Court agreed and vacated the family court's sentence, holding that because a misdemeanor defendant sentenced to imprisonment exceeding 180 days cannot also receive a probationary sentence, and because DVI cannot be imposed except as a condition of probation, the family court imposed an unlawful sentence in this case. View "State v. Agdinaoay" on Justia Law

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Burr was convicted for the 1991 murder of an infant, “Susie.” Burr was living with Susie’s mother, Bridges, and was physically abusive to Bridges. Bridges had returned home to find Susie unconscious, having seizures, bruised, and with broken bones. Burr was sentenced to death. Burr has pursued habeas remedies before the state and federal courts. In 2020, the district court declined to grant habeas relief on the basis of claims under "Brady" and "Napue," related to transcripts of interviews with two witnesses, Susie’s brother, Scott, and Bridges.The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Burr has not demonstrated that the state court’s decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts,” 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(2). The state court did not unreasonably apply Brady when it concluded that “any inconsistencies between the trial testimony of [Bridges and Scott] and their pre-trial comments to the prosecutors are of de minimis significance.” Burr did not explain how the transcript would have allowed him to impeach that testimony. The jury could make its own determination of how much weight to give the statements of a young child who repeatedly stated that he could not remember key details. Burr has not pointed to any “false impression” about Scott’s testimony that prosecutors should have been aware of and flagged but that the jury would not also have been aware of after listening to that testimony. View "Burr v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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Gillispie was convicted of two 1988 rapes and spent more than 20 years in prison before Ohio courts vacated his convictions, based on his claims of failure to disclose exculpatory evidence and actual innocence. Gillispie brought 42 U.S.C. 1983 claims against Moore, the police officer responsible for much of the investigation and the identification of Gillispie as the likely perpetrator. Gillispie alleges that Moore suppressed exculpatory evidence, arranged an unduly suggestive eyewitness identification procedure, fabricated inculpatory evidence, assisted in maliciously prosecuting him, and destroyed exculpatory evidence. Moore claims entitlement to qualified immunity. The district court determined that each of Gillispie’s claims should proceed to trial.The Sixth Circuit dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Moore’s argument on appeal is simply a challenge to the district court’s determinations that genuine issues of material fact exist on the core claims. Defendants cannot appeal a denial of a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity insofar as that order determines whether the pretrial record sets forth a “genuine” issue of fact for trial. “An appeal choosing to take this tack anyway delays the administration of our justice system and is a waste of judicial resources.” View "Gillispie v. Miami Township" on Justia Law

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Jesus Valderas, facing several felony charges, did not appear at a status conference/trial call on October 20, 2020. It was the second consecutive court appearance that Valderas missed. The trial court issued a bench warrant for Valderas but ordered the warrant to be held until December 8, 2020, the date on which the court had set a readiness conference. The court sent notice to Valderas by mail to his last known address. When Valderas did not appear at the December 8 hearing, the court lifted its hold on the bench warrant. Valderas sought a writ of mandamus to recall the December 8 bench warrant., arguing there was no evidence before the court, at the time it lifted its hold on the bench warrant, that Valderas had actual notice that he was required to appear. Put differently, Valderas argues that a court may only issue a bench warrant if it can show that the subject defendant had actual notice of the hearing date he or she missed. The wrinkle here was that the COVID-19 pandemic caused the San Diego Superior Court to close for all criminal proceedings and continue all hearing and trial dates, thus requiring new dates be set for Valderas’s upcoming hearings and trial. Valderas did not dispute that the notices were mailed. His counsel represented to the court that Valderas was “couch surfing” with no set living address and infrequent access to a cell phone. Based on these representations, Valderas insisted there was no evidence that he had actual notice of the hearings, and, without actual notice, the court could not issue a bench warrant. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument: "Here, we believe the burden appropriately falls on Valderas. ... Even if Valderas were changing residences or having difficulty obtaining the use of a cell phone, it is not too burdensome to require him to check in with the court or his attorney in the eight months that followed the continuation of his trial date. He did not do so. ... We decline to require a court in this situation to track down Valderas’s actual whereabouts, provide him with notice of a hearing, and, only then, if he does not appear, issue a bench warrant. ... "The court correctly exercised its discretion in issuing the bench warrant for Valderas. View "Valderas v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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Bittner non-willfully failed to report his interests in foreign bank accounts on annual FBAR forms, as required by the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 (BSA), 31 U.S.C. 5314. The Act imposes no penalty for a non-willful violation if “such violation was due to reasonable cause.”The government assessed $2.72 million in civil penalties against him—$10,000 for each unreported account each year from 2007 to 2011. The district court found Bittner liable and denied his reasonable-cause defense but reduced the assessment to $50,000, holding that the $10,000 maximum penalty attaches to each failure to file an annual FBAR, not to each failure to report an account.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of Bittner’s reasonable-cause defense. Bittner did not exercise ordinary business care and prudence in failing to fulfill his reporting obligations. In assessing reasonable cause, the most important factor is the extent of the taxpayer’s effort to assess his proper liability. The court reversed with respect to the application of the $10,000 penalty. Each failure to report a qualifying foreign account constitutes a separate reporting violation subject to penalty. The penalty applies on a per-account, not a per-form, basis. View "United States v. Bittner" on Justia Law

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Harris is charged with a violent rape that occurred in 1989. DNA from the crime scene and a vaginal swab matched Harris’s. A “pretrial services court report” indicated that Harris appeared to be an appropriate candidate for release on his own recognizance with enhanced monitoring. Harris asked for release on his own recognizance with nonfinancial conditions, e.g., a no-contact order, limitation of his use of dating websites, and GPS tracking. Harris argued that he is indigent, there is no indication he is a flight or safety risk, the alleged crimes occurred 32 years ago, he has not tried to contact the victim, he had a limited criminal history in the interim years, and he had community ties. The prosecution offered testimony by the victim that she feared for her safety, the doctor who treated the victim, and several women who reported that Harris liked to tie women up during sex and enact rape fantasies.Ultimately, the trial court denied Harris bail. finding that the charged felony offenses involved acts of violence on another person and that there is clear and convincing evidence of a substantial likelihood that Harris’s release would result in great bodily harm to others. The court of appeal remanded. The court erred in failing to set out reasons on the record why less restrictive alternatives to detention could not reasonably protect the public or victim safety. View "In re Harris" on Justia Law