Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Long before the passage of California Senate Bill No. 620 in 2002, defendant Frederick Johnson pleaded no contest in two cases to various counts in connection with multiple armed robberies and, as relevant here, admitted seven Penal Code section 12022.53(b) enhancements. He was sentenced to 46 years four months in prison, and resentenced approximately 15 years later to 46 years in prison. The issue this case presented for the Court of Appeal to decide related to the extent to which fairly recent legislation, when considered together with the available caselaw interpreting that legislation, conferred new discretion on trial courts at sentencing. The discretion at issue here was a trial court’s choice to impose an uncharged lesser included firearm enhancement in lieu of the greater enhancement of conviction, after the greater enhancement was stricken by the trial court in its exercise of discretion. The Court agreed with defendant that the trial court had broad discretion to impose a lesser uncharged firearm enhancement provided for by section 12022.5(a) when it exercises its discretion to strike a Penal Code section 12022.53(b) firearm enhancement of conviction. The Court remanded the case for a full resentencing hearing, where the trial court could consider exercise of its discretion and any other new laws related to sentencing that might apply to defendant. View "California v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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The Haistens sold discounted animal pesticides and drugs online from their South Carolina home. They operated in violation of multiple FDA and EPA regulations. They sold counterfeit DVDs of movies and television shows that they obtained from China. The Haistens ignored cease-and-desist letters from state regulators and animal pesticides companies. Department of Homeland Security agents began making undercover purchases from the Haistens. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized shipments of counterfeit DVDs. Agents then searched the Haistens’ home, which revealed unapproved animal pesticides and drugs, counterfeit DVDs, and business records. In the ensuing prosecution, Count 14 charged the Haistens with trafficking counterfeit DVDs that were seized by CBP officers in Cincinnati. Count 15 charged them with trafficking counterfeit DVDs, that were seized at their home. Defense counsel did not request a jury instruction on improper venue or move for acquittal on Counts 14 or 15 for lack of proper venue in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The Haistens appealed, challenging an evidentiary ruling and a statement the government made during its summation. The Third Circuit affirmed.The Haistens then sought relief under 28 U.S.C. 2255, arguing that their trial counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge venue on Counts 14 and 15. The Third Circuit remanded the denial of that motion for the district court to conduct an evidentiary hearing on whether their counsel had a strategic reason for not raising a defense based on improper venue. View "United States v. Haisten" on Justia Law

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During proceedings to determine whether Defendant had violated the conditions of his supervised release, Defendant asked the district court to allow him to appear without a lawyer. The court granted his request and, after a hearing, revoked Defendant’s supervised release and sentenced him to thirteen months' imprisonment. Defendant maintains on appeal that the court erred in granting his request.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that Defendant has not demonstrated reversible error but merely buyer's remorse for his decision to proceed pro se. The court wrote that the record shows that the court did not deny Defendant his right to proceed with appointed counsel; if anything, it shows that the court encouraged Defendant to proceed with his prior attorney as counsel. The court explained that a "district court does not violate the right to counsel when it gives a defendant the choice between adequate representation and self-representation," see Ivers, 44 F.4th at 756, and Defendant does not allege that his previous counsel was inadequate. In addition, Defendant has no right to standby counsel, as that option is available at the district court's discretion. View "United States v. Orlando Preston" on Justia Law

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Victim, who was fifteen at the time of trial, alleged she was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions by respondent Charles Rampey, her stepfather, when she was eleven and twelve years old. Victim testified that sometime around her birthday in June of 2013, Rampey called Victim into a room and forced her to touch his penis. On another occasion, Victim testified that Rampey had her perform oral sex on him. This escalated to multiple instances of sexual intercourse, according to Victim. In this criminal sexual conduct case with a minor, the trial judge gave an Allen charge to the jury after approximately two hours and twenty minutes of deliberations. About an hour and fifteen minutes later, the jury returned with a not guilty verdict as to criminal sexual conduct with a minor (CSC) in the second degree and a guilty verdict as to CSC third degree. Rampey, appealed, asserting the Allen charge was unconstitutionally coercive. The court of appeals reversed the conviction in an unpublished opinion, primarily citing to South Carolina v. Taylor, 829 S.E.2d 723 (Ct. App. 2019). Finding no reversible error in the appellate court's judgment, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed. "The trial court's overemphasis of the resources expended and the need for a verdict, combined with the absence of the critical cautionary language despite being requested by defense counsel, renders the charge unconstitutional and warrants a new trial. Moreover, the post-verdict polling of the jurors by the trial court did not cure this error." View "South Carolina v. Rampey" on Justia Law

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In separate indictments, a grand jury charged Appellant Stoyan Anastassov with two instances of second-degree-felony indecency with a child by sexual contact. The indictments alleged that Appellant, a professional tennis coach, unlawfully engaged in sexual contact with one of his female students, a child younger than seventeen years old, with the intent to arouse and gratify his sexual desire by contacting her genitalia and her breast with his hand. Appellant pleaded not guilty to both charges, and the two cases were tried together in a single proceeding. The jury found Appellant guilty of the offenses alleged and assessed his punishment at confinement for nine years on one charge, three years on the other, and a $10,000 fine in each case. The trial court accepted the jury’s verdicts and sentenced Appellant accordingly. The issue this case presented for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was whether, if a defendant is convicted of multiple offenses stemming from the same criminal episode in a single proceeding, the trial court imposes fines as part of the sentence for each offense, and the sentences are to be discharged concurrently, should each judgment include the fine actually imposed, or should only one of the judgments include a fine to ensure that the defendant pays only once? The Court concluded each judgment must include the fine actually imposed. The court of appeals erred here by deleting one of Appellant’s two lawfully-assessed concurrent fines of $10,000 for his indecency-with-a-child convictions under the mistaken belief that including both fines in the judgments would improperly indicate that they were to be stacked. Accordingly, the Court reversed the portion of the court of appeals’ judgment deleting the fine in case number F-1550350-V, and reinstated the $10,000 fine that the trial court originally included in the written judgment for that offense. The Court otherwise affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment. View "Anastassov v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Henry Skinner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. He filed numerous Chapter 64 motions seeking post-conviction DNA testing. Most recently, the convicting court found that he did not show ti was reasonably probable that he would not have been convicted had the results been available during his trial. Appellant appealed that finding to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. While Appellant’s appeal was pending, he asked the Court to remand the case so that prior DNA test results obtained by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) could be reanalyzed using a new protocol for interpretations of DNA mixtures.The Court agreed and remanded the case. After the reanalysis was complete, the convicting court again found against Appellant. After reviewing the record, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the convicting court that Appellant failed to satisfy his Article 64.04 burden. Accordingly, judgment was affirmed. View "Skinner v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Petitioner was convicted by a Georgia jury of kidnapping, robbery, gang rape, and murder. The jury recommended that Petitioner be sentenced to death for his crimes. Having exhausted his state post-conviction remedies, Petitioner filed a federal habeas corpus petition, arguing, as relevant here, that his trial counsel rendered him constitutionally ineffective assistance in connection with the sentencing phase of his trial. The district court denied relief, but a panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed and vacated Petitioner’s death sentence, holding that the state court’s rejection of his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.   The Eleventh Circuit granted rehearing en banc to decide whether the state court’s decision that Petitioner is not entitled to relief on his ineffective assistance claim warrants deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The court affirmed the district court’s denial of Petitioner’s petition and remanded it to the panel. The court held that the state court reasonably concluded that Petitioner was not prejudiced by any of his counsel’s alleged deficiencies in connection with his sentencing proceeding.   The court explained that while Petitioner argues that the background evidence that Mostiler should have presented parallels the evidence in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000), and Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374 (2005), those cases “offer no guidance with respect to whether a state court has unreasonably determined that prejudice is lacking” because the Supreme Court “did not apply AEDPA deference to the question of prejudice in those cases.” View "Willie James Pye v. Warden, Georgia Diagnostic Prison" on Justia Law

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On April 24, 2019, Deputy Brott stopped defendant-appellant Arthur Vivian’s car because Vivian’s brake lights were not working. Brott recorded the stop using a body camera. Vivian informed Brott that his license had been suspended and Brott began investigating the reason for Vivian’s suspended license. After five minutes and forty seconds of interaction with Vivian, Brott returned to his vehicle to run Vivian’s license. Brott talked to Officer Short, who had recently arrived at the scene. Short advised Brott that there was a possibility there could be narcotics in Vivian’s vehicle. Brott called for a drug detecting K-9 unit nine minutes into the stop. Brott exited his patrol car with the completed citation and Vivian’s license at sixteen minutes and forty-six seconds into the stop. Deputy Hickam and a drug detecting K-9 arrived eighteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds into the stop. At nineteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds Brott approached Vivian’s vehicle, asked Vivian to exit the vehicle and requested to pat him down. Brott issued the suspended license citation at twenty minutes and forty seconds. During the time Brott explained the citation to Vivian, the drug K-9 alerted to a controlled substance in the vehicle. A subsequent search discovered a bag containing methamphetamine. Vivian appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained following his traffic stop, arguing the stop was unlawfully extended, and statements made before and after the delay were gathered in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The State contended that evidence of the drugs would have been inevitably discovered, and thus statements made relating to those drugs were admissible under the same doctrine. The Idaho Supreme Court rejected that argument, finding verbal statements were different than physical evidence "because a defendant could choose, if given time for reflection, not to make the statements or to answer differently." The Court held the inevitable discovery exception did not apply to statements that would otherwise be excluded as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” The district court’s decision that Vivian’s post-Miranda statements were admissible was reversed, Vivian’s judgment of conviction was vacated, and the case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Idaho v. Vivian" on Justia Law

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Brian Brookins was convicted by jury of the murders of Sandra Suzanne Brookins and Samantha Rae Giles and of related crimes. The jury declined in its guilt/innocence phase verdict to find Brookins “mentally retarded” or “mentally ill.” At the conclusion of the sentencing phase, the jury found multiple statutory aggravating circumstances and sentenced Brookins to death for each of the two murders. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Brookins’s convictions and sentences. View "Brookins v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Vernon Beamon was convicted by jury of malice murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting deaths of Sylvia Watson and Samuel White. Beamon appealed, arguing that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his convictions and that his convictions for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony should have merged. After review, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed with both contentions and affirmed. View "Beamon v. Georgia" on Justia Law