Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Carl Flores was convicted by jury of attempted premeditated murder with a 25-year-to-life gun enhancement. After trial, Flores admitted a prior serious felony, a prior prison term, and two prior strike offenses, which made him a third strike offender and exposed him to a life sentence under the “Three Strikes” law. At sentencing, the judge struck the prison prior and prior serious felony enhancements but nevertheless added them to the minimum term of Flores’s life sentence, to reach a total indeterminate term of 69 years. On appeal, Flores challenged the sentence, and raised a new question about the role of enhancements in third strike sentencing. If a trial court exercises its discretion to strike an enhancement under Penal Code section 1385 “in furtherance of justice,” may the enhancement still be used to increase the minimum term of the defendant’s life sentence under what is commonly called “Option 3” of third strike sentencing? To this the Court of Appeal concluded no: once a court exercises its discretion to strike an enhancement under section 1385 for sentencing purposes, the enhancement may no longer be used to increase punishment, whether as a separate determinate term to be served before the life sentence or as a means of lengthening the minimum term of the life sentence. The Court also found the trial judge in this case made the additional error of adding the enhancements twice to the minimum term of Flores’s life sentence. The other arguments Flores raised on appeal lacked merit. Judgment was affirmed but the matter remanded for resentencing. View "California v. Flores" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, convicted of capital murder in 1998, filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action challenging the constitutionality of the Texas postconviction DNA testing statute and seeking to compel the Texas officials to release the items he wishes to test.After determining that it had jurisdiction to hear the appeal and that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's claim, concluding that plaintiff's claim is barred by the statute of limitations. In this case, plaintiff knew or should have known of his alleged injury in November 2014, five years before he brought his section 1983 claim, and thus his claim is time-barred. View "Reed v. Goertz" on Justia Law

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Appellant Jarreau Ayers was convicted on: one count of Riot; two counts of Assault First Degree; four counts of Kidnapping First Degree; and one count of Conspiracy Second Degree. These charges arose from his participation in the February 1-2, 2017 inmate takeover of C Building at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC). Ayers was found guilty of these offenses following a sixteen-day jury trial. On appeal, he contended the trial judge erred by not curing prosecutorial misconduct which occurred during the State’s rebuttal argument. At trial, Ayers claimed that he was not a participant in the planning and execution of the takeover and was outside of C Building in the recreational yard when the takeover took place. The alleged improper argument came when the prosecutor said to the jury, “[y]ou spent the better part of the last month with Jarreau Ayers. What about Mr. Ayres suggests that . . . he’s not going to do exactly what he wants to do, which is to go inside and join in what’s happening there.” Ayers contended that this part of the rebuttal argument was improper because it asked the jury to consider Ayres’ character in the courtroom as observed by the jury during the trial. Ayers objected to the prosecutor’s statement, but his objection was overruled. After consideration of the record and the parties’ arguments, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded the trial judge’s failure to take steps to cure any alleged prejudice caused by the prosecutor’s comment, if error, was harmless error. Accordingly, judgment was affirmed. View "Ayers v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit vacated its previous opinion and substituted it with the following opinion.The court affirmed defendant's conviction for five counts of armed robbery and carrying a firearm in furtherance of the robberies. The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied defendant's motion to continue the trial date; the district court did not err or abuse its discretion in declining to dismiss Juror 20 for cause based on her employment with the Department of Community Supervision because she did not qualify as a member of a police department; even assuming without deciding that the Google geo-location data should have been excluded as "fruit of the poisonous tree," any error in admitting that evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt; the evidence sufficiently supported defendant's convictions on all five robberies; the special agent's testimony does not warrant vacatur of the convictions; and, even assuming error, cumulative error does not warrant vacatur of the convictions. View "United States v. Pendergrass" on Justia Law

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In May 2017, Jackson was convicted of three counts of carjacking and three counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c). While Jackson’s appeal was pending, Congress enacted the First Step Act. Three months later, the Sixth Circuit vacated one of his section 924(c) convictions and remanded for resentencing. The district court determined that the First Step Act’s amendments to section 924(c) apply retroactively to someone who, like Jackson, had his sentence vacated after the Act became law and sentenced him accordingly, reducing the 32-year mandatory minimum sentences he faced under section 924(c) to 14 years. Because Jackson no longer faced 57 years of mandatory minimum sentences, the district court increased his sentence for the three carjackings from 87 months’ imprisonment to 108 months.The Sixth Circuit vacated. The district court should not have applied the amended section 924(c), which applies for a defendant on whom “a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of” December 21, 2018. As of that day, a sentence had been imposed on Jackson. That the first sentence was later vacated does not alter Jackson’s status on the day the First Step Act became law. View "United States v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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Jackson and Combs pleaded guilty to participating in a cocaine distribution ring. Jackson was sentenced to 192 months’ imprisonment due to his role as a leader in the drug-distribution conspiracy, U.S.S.G. 3B1.1(a).. Combs was sentenced to 188 months’ imprisonment due to his career-offender status, U.S.S.G. 4B1.1. The Sixth Circuit affirmed as to Jackson, who recruited and supervised participants and held a substantial amount of the cash proceeds. The court also rejected Jackson's challenge to the mandatory-minimum 20-year sentence he received in accordance with 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A), due to his prior marijuana-trafficking conviction.The court initially held that Combs’s Kentucky trafficking offense categorically qualified as a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines; U.S.S.G. 4B1.2 and Combs’s designation as a career offender. The court rejected Combs’s argument that distribution requires a commercial aspect. In an amended opinion, the Sixth Circuit cited intervening circuit precedent and reversed the career-offender finding for Combs. Conspiracy to distribute controlled substances is not a controlled substances offense under U.S.S.G. 4B1.2(b). View "United States v. Combs" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of petitioner's habeas corpus petition challenging his California state conviction and death sentence for two first-degree murders. The panel granted a certificate of appealability (COA) on the claims related to ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC). In this opinion, the panel addressed the certified claims as well as the previously uncertified claim (Claim 48), namely whether trial counsel failed to present evidence of mental impairments at the penalty phase.The panel applied the deferential standards imposed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and concluded that the California court's inferred conclusions were not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law or based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. The panel held that presenting the jailhouse informant's testimony would not have created a reasonable probability that petitioner would not have been convicted as an aider and abettor in two murders. Therefore, lead counsel at the guilt phase was not ineffective for failing to investigate and present evidence from the informant. Furthermore, counsel did not render deficient performance by failing to raise petitioner's mental impairments as mitigating evidence at the penalty phase; the panel did not review petitioner's argument that the state court made an unreasonable determination of the facts under 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(2) because this claim rests on an issue of state law; and the panel upheld the district court's denial of habeas relief on petitioner's proportionality claim. View "Sanchez v. Davis" on Justia Law

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In 2017, Kirschner earned $30,105 by importing counterfeit coins and bullion and then, posing as a federal law enforcement agent, selling them as genuine articles to unsuspecting customers. Searching his home and interdicting packages, agents seized thousands of counterfeit coins and bullion that, according to the government’s expert, would have been worth approximately $46.5 million if genuine. Kirschner pleaded guilty to impersonating an officer acting under the authority of the United States, 18 U.S.C. 912, and importing counterfeit coins and bars with intent to defraud, 18 U.S.C. 485. The court applied a two-level sentencing enhancement because Kirschner’s fraud used sophisticated means; another two-level enhancement because Kirschner abused a position of public trust to facilitate his crimes; and a 22-level enhancement because the “loss” attributable to his scheme was greater than $25 million but less than $65 million.The Third Circuit vacated Kirschner’s 126-month sentence. While the district court was within its discretion to apply the abuse-of-trust and use-of-sophisticated-means enhancements, it clearly erred in applying the 22-level enhancement for loss, and the error was not harmless. While the court focused on what Kirschner intended to do with the high-value counterfeits, it never found that the government proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Kirschner intended to sell the coins as counterfeits (not replicas) for the prices the government claimed. View "United States v. Kirschner" on Justia Law

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Petitioner filed a pro se motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. 2255, claiming that his appellate counsel abandoned him by failing to communicate and provide requested documents. The district court denied his motion but issued a certificate of appealability on defendant's right to counsel for a petition for rehearing under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 40.The Eighth Circuit concluded that there is no constitutional right to counsel for discretionary appeals, and because petitioner has no constitutional right to rehearing counsel, he cannot claim ineffective assistance of counsel. The court rejected petitioner's contention that the Criminal Justice Act plan or Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 44(a) grant the right to effective assistance of counsel for petitions for rehearing. Therefore, the district court properly denied petitioner's section 2255 motion. View "Ahumada v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's convictions of first-degree murder, sexual battery of a person under twelve years old, and kidnapping, and the imposition of the death penalty, holding that there was no prejudicial error in this case.Specifically, the Supreme Court held (1) the trial court did not commit fundamental error in failing to grant Defendant's motion for change of venue; (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant's motion for a mistrial on account of the interruption to the testimony of the state's expert; (3) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant's motion to exclude autopsy photographs during certain testimony; (4) Defendant was not entitled to relief on his claim that the state made inappropriate comments in its opening statement and in closing argument; and (5) there was no cumulative error in this case. View "Smith v. State" on Justia Law