Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Defendant Fidel Mora-Duran waived preliminary hearing and pleaded no contest to felony marijuana cultivation. After his plea, but before sentencing, Proposition 64 was passed, which amended Health & Saf. Code section 11358 narrowing the scope of conduct constituting felony marijuana cultivation. Defendant asked the trial court to sentence him and redesignate his conviction as a misdemeanor. The trial court refused, explaining the parties had not agreed to that. The court then rejected the plea agreement and reinstated charges. After the prosecution filed an amended information, defendant pleaded no contest to felony marijuana cultivation under section 11358(d)(3)(C), a new provision enacted as part of Proposition 64 requiring proof of additional elements. Thereafter, defendant was placed on probation for two years on the condition that he serve a period in jail that amounted to time served. On appeal, defendant contended: (1) the trial court abused its discretion in rejecting the plea agreement; (2) his conviction should have been reversed because charges were added to the amended information after a preliminary hearing was waived in violation of Penal Code section 1009; and (3) his sentence violated the prohibition on ex post facto punishment. The Court of Appeal concluded defendant’s second contention had merit: the amendment to the information, though ostensibly filed pursuant to the same statute, constituted a significant variance from the original charges. Defendant's conviction under section 11358(d)(3)(C) was reversed, and the attendant sentence was vacated. The matter was remanded for further proceedings on the other charges. View "California v. Mora-Duran" on Justia Law

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Lipsett pled guilty to battery on a non-prisoner by a prisoner and admitted a prior conviction that qualified as a strike. He was sentenced to six years in prison. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting his argument that the trial court abused its discretion and violated his constitutional rights in refusing to strike the strike, noting that Lipsett has an extensive criminal history involving violence and that this crime was violent. The court also rejected an argument that his case should be remanded for a determination of whether he qualifies for mental health diversion, Penal Code 1001.36. That section was not intended to apply retroactively to cases that have been adjudicated but are not yet final on appeal. View "People v. Lipsett" on Justia Law

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A juvenile court found that Amber had committed felony assault by force likely to produce great bodily harm, adjudged her a ward of the court, and imposed conditions of probation. The conditions included a requirement that she submit her electronic devices to warrantless searches of any medium of communication likely to reveal whether she is complying with the conditions of her probation. The court of appeal held that the condition is appropriate but too broad to withstand scrutiny. It imposes a burden that is not proportionate to the legitimate interest it serves of ensuring that Amber does not have contact with a specific person. View "In re Amber K." on Justia Law

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Four men from Miami drove to Louisville to set up chiropractic clinics. Lezcano, the mastermind, decided to file false claims with the patients’ insurers and get paid for treatments that never happened. The others, Chavez, Betancourt, and Diaz joined in. The plan worked due to aggressive marketing. The conspirators recruited and paid patients both to come to the clinics and to recruit others. Many of the patients worked at the Jeffboat shipyard. Jeffboat (through its claim administrator, United Healthcare) paid the clinics more than $1 million for fake injections of a muscle relaxant. The government discovered the scheme and brought criminal charges. Chavez went to trial, claiming he had no idea that Lezcano was cooking the books. Convicted of healthcare fraud, conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, aggravated identity theft, and conspiracy to commit money laundering for purposes of concealment. Chavez was sentenced to 74 months’ imprisonment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting his challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence and a related challenge to the prosecutor’s closing argument; two hearsay arguments; three objections to the jury instructions; and a sentencing argument. View "United States v. Chavez" on Justia Law

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The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's three drug-related convictions. The court held that the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute methamphetamine, because the evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to find proof beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant knew of the conspiracy and knowingly and voluntarily became a part of it; the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction for use of a communication facility in the commission of a drug felony where a reasonable jury could infer from defendant's actions that he knew he was using the mail to transfer controlled substances; and sufficient evidence supported defendant's conviction for possessing and distributing a controlled substance where a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant knew the package at issue contained methamphetamine. Finally, the court held that the record did not support a finding of willful blindness, because the court could not identify any deliberate actions that defendant took to avoid learning of the conspiracy or the contents of the package that was shipped to his residence. View "United States v. Ath" on Justia Law

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Customs and Border Protection K-9 Officer Lopez was working at the airport in St. Thomas and took his certified canine, Bo, into a cargo plane to inspect incoming mail. Bo alerted to a package, indicating the presence of drugs. The package purportedly had been sent by Price, whose address was in South Carolina, and had been mailed to Meade in St. Thomas. Kouns removed it from the plane, opened the box and brought out a piece of clothing that smelled strongly of marijuana, although no drugs were found. When Kouns returned the item to the box, a magazine and round of ammunition fell to the floor. The officers discovered the unassembled parts of a gun. Days later, a postal inspector contacted Customs regarding another package, bearing the same names and addresses. Lopez and Kouns responded. Because of the addresses and the package's weight, Kouns suspected it might contain another gun. An x-ray revealed items an apparent gun and ammunition. Kouns opened the package and discovered a gun and ammunition. Homeland Security arranged a controlled delivery of the packages. Authorities apprehended Baxter as the sender of the packages; he was charged with two counts of illegal transport of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(5). The District Court of the Virgin Islands granted his motion to suppress. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that Customs permissibly conducted the searches pursuant to the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment. View "United States v. Baxter" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Michael Bacon appealed a district court’s decision to keep the supplement to his plea agreement filed under seal. In 2015, Bacon pleaded guilty to two counts of bank robbery and one count of robbing a credit union, pursuant to a written plea agreement. At his combined plea and sentencing hearing, the district court asked Bacon if he had signed the documents relating to his plea agreement. After responding that he had not, Bacon’s counsel explained that Bacon was “concerned about the [plea] supplement” and asked “for permission to file the plea agreement without the [plea] supplement. The district court responded that under Utah local rules, supplements were sealed in every case, “and we do that to protect the rare person who does cooperate.” Plea supplements describe the nature of the defendant’s cooperation with the government or lack thereof. Bacon ultimately refused to sign his plea supplement, explaining to the court that “[w]hen you go off to prison and you’ve got something sealed inside your paperwork and the yard gets the paperwork and they see you’ve got a sealed document, they think you cooperated, and they want to hurt you.” His counsel signed it on his behalf. At Bacon’s resentencing, the parties did not dispute that Bacon’s supervised release term should have been reduced to 36 months, however, a dispute emerged over the sealed plea supplement. Bacon addressed the court himself, regarding the sealed plea supplement, stating, “If I don’t wan’t [sic] to place my life in jeopardy, I don’t see how the federal government can force me to do that.” Bacon contended the district court erred by failing to consider the common law right of access to court documents and by failing to make case-specific findings regarding sealing on the record. The Tenth Circuit determined defendant was challenging the district court’s decision to keep a specific document under seal, not its authority to enact a local rule. “A presumption of openness must be overcome for a judicial record to remain under seal. The record demonstrates that the district court did not consider this presumption of access to judicial records.” Because the Court determined the district court failed to articulate a case-specific reason for its sealing decision, its decision was vacated and the matter remanded. View "United States v. Bacon" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence for three counts of wire fraud, two counts of mail fraud, and one count of money laundering. The court held that the district court did not err in failing to sua sponte revoke defendant's right to self-representation on the first day of trial or to hold a competency hearing, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to grant a new trial on that basis. The court also held that the district court did not err by terminating defendant's self-representation during the third day of trial and in directing standby counsel to take over his defense. In this case, the totality of defendant's behavior supported the district court's decision to terminate defendant's self-representation. Finally, the court held that the district court adequately explained the basis for the upward variance in light of the 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors; defendant's sentence was not substantively unreasonable; and the district court did not abuse its discretion in sentencing defendant. View "United States v. Luscombe" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit reversed defendant's sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to distributing methamphetamine. The court held that the district court erred in finding that defendant's prior Arkansas conviction for terroristic threatening was a crime of violence under USSG 4B1.1(a). In this case, the available materials suggest that the "injury to persons" and "injury to property" components of the Class B felony's mens rea requirement are different means of satisfying a single mens rea element and not alternative elements defining different crimes. Therefore, the court concluded that the categorical approach's "demand for certainty" has not been met. However, the court held that the district court did not err in finding defendant's conviction for second degree battery qualified as a crime of violence under section 4B1.1(a). Accordingly, the court remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Harris" on Justia Law

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This interlocutory appeal involves the “unavailability as a witness” requirement under Oregon Evidence Code (OEC) 804(1), for purposes of applying an exception to the hearsay rule in a criminal case. The State served a subpoena on a key witness to testify against defendant Chad Iseli and made other efforts to ensure her attendance at trial, but she did not attend. The State therefore moved to introduce her earlier out-of- court statements under the “forfeiture-by-wrongdoing” exception to the hearsay rule, OEC 804(3)(g). The trial court found that the State had made substantial efforts to secure the witness’s attendance and that she had expressed safety concerns about testifying. It also found, in relation to the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing exception, that defendant had engaged in intentional, wrongful conduct that had caused her absence. The court further determined, however, that the State had not established that the witness was unavailable because it had not sought a material witness warrant or a remedial contempt order. The court therefore denied the state’s motion to admit her earlier statements. The State appealed that ruling, and the Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that, particularly in light of defendant’s intentional, wrongful conduct, the State had satisfied the “process or other reasonable means” requirement of OEC 804(1)(e), thereby establishing that the witness was unavailable. The Oregon Supreme Court reversed, finding that while the trial court was incorrect to view certain facts as categorically irrelevant to the “unavailability as a witness” determination under OEC 804(1)(e). "Ultimately, though, when we add those facts to the calculus, we again conclude that the trial court’s ultimate ruling - that the state did not satisfy the “other reasonable means” component and, therefore, did not establish that the victim was unavailable - was correct. View "Oregon v. Iseli" on Justia Law