Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Morales fired six shots toward a parked car, resulting in the death of his pregnant acquaintance who stood near the car. The jury convicted Morales of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of shooting at an occupied vehicle, and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon, finding true four firearm use enhancements under Penal Code 12022.53(d) and a multiple murder special circumstance allegation (section 190.2(a)(3)).The court of appeal affirmed, modifying the sentence. The court rejected Morales’s arguments that the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct in closing argument and that counsel was ineffective for failing to object; that there was insufficient evidence to support a kill zone jury instruction; and with respect to the firearm use enhancement on count 1, that Morales was deprived of due process by the court’s failure to instruct that the requisite great bodily injury or death under section 12022.53(d) must be to a person other than an accomplice. The judgment was modified by striking the sentences of 25 years to life on counts 1 and 2, and the term of life without the possibility of parole imposed for the multiple-murder special circumstance finding. The superior court is to impose a term of life without the possibility of parole on counts 1 and 2. For count 1, the jury’s true finding under section 12022.53(d) was reversed; the 25-years-to-life enhancement imposed upon that finding was vacated. View "People v. Morales" on Justia Law

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Dingwall was charged with three counts of robbery and three counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. She admits the robberies but claims she committed them under duress, in fear of brutal violence by her abusive boyfriend, Stanley. Dingwall sought a ruling on evidence to support her duress defense, including expert evidence on battering and its effects. The duress defense has two elements: reasonable fear of imminent death or serious injury, and the absence of reasonable, legal alternatives to committing the crime. The district court denied Dingwall’s motion. Dingwall then pleaded guilty, reserving her right to appeal the decision on the motion in limine. The Seventh Circuit reversed, noting that the cases are close and difficult, often dividing appellate panels. “Dingwall surely faces challenges” Stanley was not physically present for any of the robberies, Dingwall actually held a gun, and there is a dispute about whether Stanley threatened harm if she did not commit these specific offenses. Those facts present questions for a jury; the immediate physical presence of the threat is not always essential to a duress defense. Expert evidence of battering and its effects may inform the jury how an objectively reasonable person under the defendant’s circumstances might behave. View "United States v. Dingwall" on Justia Law

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San Mateo County Deputy Tapia was dispatched to a Millbrae apartment about 2:00 a.m. on September 21, 2020, based on a 911 call. Tapia learned that Ayala had accused his stepfather, Abner, of molesting Ayala’s daughter and had made threats. After arresting Ayala for criminal threats and reading him his Miranda rights Tapia interviewed Ayala, who acknowledged having said “some violent shit.” Tapia believed that Ayala may have been under the influence of drugs.A magistrate held Ayala to answer to count 1 (Abner) but not to count 2 (Ayala’s mother, Clarisa), finding a “failure of proof of a threat that would result in death and great bodily injury to Clarisa.” The charge nonetheless included two counts, with two prior strike convictions and two prior felony convictions. Ayala moved to dismiss count 2 on the ground that Clarisa was not threatened within the meaning of Penal Code 422 because the alleged threat was to kill or inflict physical harm on Abner. The trial court denied Ayala’s motion. Following a remand, the court of appeal denied Ayala’s petition for peremptory writ of prohibition. Section 422 is focused on mental distress and does not require a threat of violence against the victim. View "Ayala v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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Jackson Police Officer Stanton saw a silver Cadillac parked near an open convenience store. The vehicle was occupied by two men who “didn’t appear to be exiting the vehicle, [and] didn’t appear to be patronizing the establishment.” Stanton decided to conduct a “field interview.” Several patrol cars converged on the vehicle with their blue lights activated; it would have been impossible for the vehicle to leave the parking lot. Officers approached the car. Stanton testified that the men in the vehicle were free to leave but he did not communicate that to them. Flowers, in the driver’s seat, lowered his window. Stanton reported smelling “what appeared to be the strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle.” Flowers provided his driver’s license. According to Stanton, the car's passenger (Mayo) then threw an object into his mouth. In response, Stanton ordered both men to exit the car. When Flowers stepped out, Stanton saw in plain view a .gun on the driver’s seat. A criminal history check revealed that Flowers had an outstanding arrest warrant. During a search incident to his arrest, Flowers stated that he had marijuana on him. Stanton recovered a small bag of marijuana from his pocket.Flowers was convicted as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The Fifth Circuit affirmed, rejecting a Fourth Amendment claim. Assuming that Mayo and Flowers were seizedStanton had reasonable suspicion to conduct a “Terry stop” under these circumstances. View "United States v. Flowers" on Justia Law

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Texas state prisoner Haverkamp, a biological male at birth who identifies as a transgender woman, sued, alleging violations of the Equal Protection Clause by denying Haverkamp medically necessary sex-reassignment surgery and by failing to provide certain female commissary items and a long-hair pass. Texas’s Correctional Managed Healthcare Committee has a policy concerning the treatment of gender disorders. Based on the state’s advisory, the district court ordered service of Haverkamp’s operative complaint on Dr. Murray, whom the state identified as the proper defendant if Haverkamp were seeking sex-reassignment surgery, and the nine Committee members who had not yet been named as parties. The district court subsequently denied motions to dismiss, concluding that the state was not entitled to sovereign immunity.The Fifth Circuit vacated. Haverkamp’s suit is barred by sovereign immunity because the Committee members are not proper defendants under Ex Parte Young; Haverkamp fails to allege they have the requisite connection to enforcing the policies Haverkamp challenges. In light of the state’s representations to the district court that these defendants are the proper state officials to sue, the court did not dismiss them from the case. View "Haverkamp v. Linthicum" on Justia Law

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Trevino was the sole owner of a chain of marijuana dispensaries throughout Michigan. A federal jury convicted him of conspiracy and nine substantive marijuana offenses. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Trevino's argued that he never should have been charged, citing a congressional appropriations rider, the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, or “Section 538,” that bars the Department of Justice from spending funds to “prevent” states from “implementing their own State laws” permitting medical marijuana, 128 Stat. 2130, 2217 (2014). Even construing Section 538 as broadly as Trevino suggests he is not entitled to relief because he was not in compliance with the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act.. Trevino also argued a limited exception to the general rule that ignorance or mistake of law is no excuse. The court rejected the argument, reasoning that the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. 801, under which Trevino was convicted, is not ambiguous. The court also rejected challenges to the denial of Trevino’s counsel’s motion to withdraw, filed less than two weeks before trial; the government’s use of summary charts at trial; and to the procedural and substantive reasonableness of his sentence. View "United States v. Trevino" on Justia Law

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Officers used a confidential informant to arrange four controlled drug buys from Rollerson. Officers obtained search warrants for an apartment and for Rollerson’s home, then stopped Rollerson for speeding. They recovered a gun and marijuana from his car. Rollerson, a convicted felon, said that he “was the only one who had something to do with the drug sales.” In Rollerson's home, police found $150,000 in cash that Rollerson admitted were drug proceeds. Rollerson had a key to the apartment, which contained four kilograms of fentanyl, 52 grams of heroin, 97 grams of cocaine, and 236 grams of tramadol, plus digital scales, firearms, and mail addressed to Rollerson. Rollerson was convicted on certain drug and firearm charges but acquitted on other drug charges. The Seventh Circuit affirmed his 276-month sentence. Rollerson claimed that the prosecution did not present sufficiently reliable information that he sold heroin and fentanyl during four controlled drug buys for which he was not charged and that those uncharged controlled buys and other drugs for which he was acquitted were not “part of the same course of conduct … scheme or plan” as his offenses of convictions. The record at sentencing on the controlled buys was sparse but absent contradictory evidence, a police officer’s affidavit attesting that the buys occurred provided the “modicum of reliability” needed to find by a preponderance of the evidence that Rollerson committed those additional crimes. View "United States v. Rollerson" on Justia Law

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Von Lester Taylor and an accomplice, Edward Deli, murdered two unarmed women who tragically encountered them burglarizing a mountain cabin in December 1990. Taylor confessed to shooting the women; he never denied he fired the first shot in the brutal attack that lead to their deaths. Taylor pled guilty to two counts of first degree murder and was sentenced to death by a Utah jury. He challenged his convictions through a petition for federal habeas corpus, contending missteps by his trial counsel lead to a defective guilty plea. The Tenth Circuit determined Taylor failed to raise his ineffective-counsel claim in Utah state court, and this would have been a procedural bar to federal habeas relief. This notwithstanding, Taylor argued that despite re-affirming time and again he participated in the murders, he was “actually innocent” of them. Thus, he contended, the Tenth Circuit should consider his underlying claims. At the district court, Taylor presented new ballistics evidence that he alleged called into question whether he fired the fatal shots in the two murders. The court credited Taylor’s claim, set aside the convictions, and considered the merits of Taylor’s claims for habeas relief. In its review, the Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s assessment of Taylor’s actual innocence claim. “To answer the question of whether he can be actually innocent of the crime: He cannot. Mr. Taylor ‘is not innocent, in any sense of the word.’” The district court’s grant of habeas relief was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Taylor v. Powell" on Justia Law

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Juvenile J.S. appealed a circuit court’s finding of delinquency based on petitions alleging criminal mischief, simple assault and attempted simple assault. The petitions were filed after a series of events in September 2020 at the Mount Prospect Academy, a non-secure detention facility whose students are placed there due to behavioral issues. At the close of the State’s case at the adjudicatory hearing, the court granted the juvenile’s motion to dismiss one of the petitions for insufficiency of evidence, and denied his motions to dismiss the remaining petitions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The latter motions argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the State failed to comply with RSA 169- B:6, III and IV. On appeal, the juvenile argued the trial court “erred as a matter of law in determining that, on the undisputed facts in the record here, Mount Prospect Academy is not a school.” Accordingly, he contended the court erred by failing to dismiss the delinquency petitions. The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s determination on the facts presented in this case, that Mount Prospect was not a “school” for purposes of RSA 169-B:6, III and IV. Accordingly, the Court upheld the trial court’s denial of the motions to dismiss and affirm the finding of delinquency. View "In re J.S." on Justia Law

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Clark, a felon with multiple priors, was approached by a police officer and fled the scene, disposed of a loaded handgun by throwing it over a fence, and then resisted arrest, ultimately injuring the officer. Clark pleaded no contest possession of a firearm by a felon and to threatening a police officer; the prosecutor dismissed the additional counts. The San Mateo County Superior Court imposed a 42-month prison sentence, suspended execution of the sentence, and placed Clark on probation for five years, with standard conditions of one year in county jail, modifiable to residential treatment. Clark left residential treatment without permission. The court found that Clark violated the terms of his probation and ordered the original prison sentence into execution and orally pronounced that “[a] $300 probation revocation fine is imposed and all outstanding fines and fees.” In the abstract of judgment, the court listed: $300 fine, $300 suspended parole revocation fine, $300 probation revocation fine, $40 court operations assessment, and $30 conviction assessment. … Total Fine/Fees $570."While his appeal was pending, Assembly Bill 1869 repealed the statute authorizing the probation supervision fee, Penal Code 1203.1b. The court of appeal held that Assembly Bill 1869 applies, so the $100 fee must be stricken; the $470 “Criminal Violation Distribution” fine did not accurately reflect the oral pronouncement of judgment. The court vacated the sentencing order, subject to reinstatement on remand with an amended abstract of judgment View "People v. Clark" on Justia Law