Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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In this appeal from a judgment of conviction against Defendant of murder in the first degree the Supreme Judicial Court exercised its authority under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 278, 33E to reduce the degree of guilt to murder in the second degree, holding that the interests of justice required that the degree of guilt be reduced under the circumstances of this case. A jury found Defendant guilty of murder int he first degree on theories of extreme atrocity or cruelty and felony-murder predicated on armed robbery. On appeal, Defendant challenged the trial court's denial of his motion for a new trial on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel and the denial of his motion to reopen and reconsider that motion. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court as to the decisions to deny the motion for a new trial and the motion to reopen and reconsider the motion for a new trial but vacated the judgment of guilt of murder in the first degree, holding that, in the circumstances of this case, there was ground to reduce the verdict from murder in the first degree to murder in the second degree. View "Commonwealth v. Dowds" on Justia Law

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Defendant Ricky Lee Cobbs was one of several young men who confronted "Kenny W." at the home of his fiancée. Defendant discovered his gun was missing. While defendant and others were kicking and beating Kenny W., one of the men pulled out a gun, and shot Kenny W. through the heart. At trial with codefendant Undrey Turner, the prosecution argued defendant was guilty of first degree murder on either of two theories: felony murder based on attempted robbery, and murder as the natural and probable consequence of assault and battery. On appeal, Cobbs argued his conviction for murder as the natural and probable consequence of assault and battery was invalid under California v. Chiu, 59 Cal.4th 155 (2014) and In re Martinez, 3 Cal.5th 1216 (2017), and both theories were invalid following changes enacted under Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) (Stats. 2018, ch. 1015, sec. 2 (SB 1437).) He contended the Court of Appeal should have vacated his conviction and directed the trial court to conduct further proceedings consistent with sections 188 and 189. The Attorney General agreed the first degree murder conviction was invalid under Chiu and Martinez, but argued the remedy should be the same as was provided in Chiu and Martinez: reverse the first degree murder conviction, and give the State the option of retrying the first degree murder count or reducing the conviction to second degree murder. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Attorney General, as SB 1437 applied retroactively only through its resentencing provision, which did not apply in this habeas proceeding. Accordingly, the Court vacated the first degree murder conviction and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Cobbs" on Justia Law

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Shoffner was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm. The Seventh Circuit vacated his below-Guidelines sentence of 84 months’ imprisonment because the district court had miscalculated the base offense level. The district court had not specified whether its imposition of a six-level increase for punching the arresting officer, U.S.S.G. 3A1.2(c)(1), was based on a belief that it was required to find, as a matter of law, that the punch created a substantial risk of serious injury or whether the court had found, as a factual matter, that the punch created a serious risk of injury. On remand, the district court, a different judge presiding, conducted a sentencing hearing. Even though the Seventh Circuit decision had decreased his applicable advisory guidelines range, Shoffner received the same sentence. The Seventh Circuit again vacated and remanded. The district court erred procedurally by not explaining why it believed that the imposed sentence was appropriate and by failing to engage with his arguments in mitigation. View "United Statesx v. Shoffner" on Justia Law

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Defendant Lonnie Schmidt managed a home foreclosure rescue operation, doing business as Second Opinion Services and Financial Services Bureau Limited. Following a lengthy jury trial in which he represented himself, defendant was convicted on four counts of prohibited practices by a foreclosure consultant, ten counts of filing false instruments, six counts of identity theft, and five counts of attempted grand theft. Defendant was sentenced to a total of 28 years in prison, plus one year to serve in the county jail. On appeal, defendant argued, and the State conceded: (1) insufficient evidence supported some of defendant’s convictions for grand theft; (2) the evidence did not support some of defendant’s convictions for filing false instruments; and (3) the trial court should have stayed his sentence for second degree burglary and attempted grand theft. The Court of Appeal agreed as to all these contentions and reversed judgment and sentence regarding those counts. The Court remanded the case for resentencing in light of this decision. View "California v. Schmidt" on Justia Law

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In 2016, Aslam was charged with offering a false document (Penal Code 115(a)) and perjury (118(a)), both felonies, based on his submission of a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) form. A jury convicted him of offering a false document but acquitted him of perjury. Aslam moved to vacate his section 115 conviction, arguing that the prosecution was required to charge him under Vehicle Code section 20, a more specific statute that makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly make a false statement in a document filed with the DMV. The court agreed, allowed the prosecution to add a Vehicle Code count to the information, then vacated the section 115 conviction. Aslam unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the Vehicle Code count, citing the five-year limitations period. The California Supreme Court denied his petition for review, “without prejudice to petitioner raising a claim" under its Kellett decision, which generally requires a single prosecution when “the prosecution is or should be aware of more than one offense in which the same act or course of conduct plays a significant part." The trial court rejected Aslam's motion to dismiss the Vehicle Code count based on Kellett and on double jeopardy. Aslam argued Section 20 is a lesser included offense of perjury, for which he had already been acquitted. The court of appeal denied relief, noting that Aslam waited until after trial to raise the Vehicle Code issue and that dismissal is not equivalent to acquittal. View "Aslam v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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During York City, Pennsylvania's New Year’s Eve fireworks festivities, Officer Thorne heard gunshots. He observed Gray carrying a firearm, walking down a pathway between rowhomes at 721 and 723 Wallace Street. Thorne gave chase with his firearm drawn, identified himself as police, and ordered Gray to drop the firearm. Gray saw that Thorne was pointing a firearm and ran toward Wallace Street. Thorne saw Gray toss his gun and run onto the porch of 725 Wallace, next to Gray’s home. Thorne followed and restrained Gray. Officer Davis arrived. Gray was taken into custody. Thorne found the firearm in front of 731 Wallace, with one round chambered and six in the magazine. The National Criminal Information Center listed the firearm as stolen in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1995. A month later Manchester Police notified Thorne: OUR DETECTIVES HAVE BEEN UNABLE TO LOCATE THE ORIGINAL VICTIM … THE FIREARM IS NOT CONSIDERED STOLEN AT THIS POINT. The Third Circuit affirmed Gray’s conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), his 84-month sentence (a downward variance of 36 months), and the application of sentencing enhancements for possession of a stolen firearm, recklessly creating a risk of serious bodily injury in the course of fleeing from law enforcement, and obstruction of justice for committing perjury at trial,. The change in designation by the Manchester Police did not change the fact that the gun had been reported stolen and appeared on the NCIC list until recovered in Gray’s possession. View "United States v. Gray" on Justia Law

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Whether a conviction for a particular state offense qualifies as a basis for removability as an aggravated felony under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii) is a question of law under de novo review. The Eighth Circuit denied a petition for review of the BIA's final order of removal. The BIA granted DHS's appeal of an IJ's order granting petitioner deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The Eighth Circuit held that defendant's conviction for willful injury causing bodily harm was a crime of violence in satisfaction of 18 U.S.C. 16(a) and a valid basis for removal under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii) because it was impossible to cause bodily injury without applying the force necessary to cause the injury. The court held that the BIA conducted a logical, clear error analysis and reached a permissible conclusion. View "Jima v. Barr" on Justia Law

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After defendant pleaded guilty to two Iowa felonies in September 2016, but before his sentencing, he possessed two firearms. A grand jury returned an indictment charging defendant with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The district court determined that defendant's guilty plea constituted a conviction under Iowa law and found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the district court's conclusion that defendant's guilty pleas constituted convictions under Iowa law. Under Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191 (2019), the court held that the Government did not prove that defendant knew he had been convicted of a felony at the time he possessed the firearms. Therefore, in light of Rehaif, the court vacated defendant's conviction and remanded for a new trial. View "United States v. Davies" on Justia Law

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Defendant Clyde Bovat was convicted of shooting a deer in violation of Vermont big-game-hunting laws and failing to immediately tag the deer. On appeal he claimed the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence allegedly obtained in violation of his constitutional right to be free from warrantless government intrusions. In the early morning hours of Thanksgiving 2017, a resident of Huntington, Vermont was awoken by a gunshot close to his home. The concerned resident called the state game warden to report a possible deer jackIng. In the course of the ensuing investigation, wardens were lead to defendant’s house. Based in part on their observations through the garage window, wardens obtained a search warrant to seize defendant’s truck and collected samples of the blood they had observed, which matched a sample from the deer at issue. They did not photograph the truck until approximately five days after the seizure, during which time the truck had been left outside in inclement weather. Due to exposure to the elements, a smaller amount of blood than originally observed was visible, and deer hair was no longer visible. Defendant unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence obtained through the search warrant. While the Vermont Supreme Court agreed with defendant that his garage is within the curtilage of his home, it was unpersuaded by his remaining arguments. The Supreme Court found the wardens were conducting a legitimate police investigation, during which they observed defendant’s truck in plain view from a semiprivate area. The Court declined to address the merits of defendant’s remaining challenges and affirmed the trial court’s judgment. View "Vermont v. Bovat" on Justia Law

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Defendant Onix Fonseca-Cintron appealed his three domestic assault convictions. He argued the trial court erred in failing to provide the jury with a self-defense instruction. He also argued the underlying conduct supported only one criminal offense, not three. The State charged defendant with three counts of domestic assault: (1) first-degree aggravated domestic assault based on defendant’s attempt to strangle complainant; (2) first-degree aggravated domestic assault with a weapon based on defendant’s hitting the complainant with a sheathed machete and threatening to kill her; and (3) domestic assault based on defendant’s dragging complainant by the hair. The jury found defendant guilty on all three counts. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Vermont v. Fonseca-Cintron" on Justia Law