Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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A grand jury charged Defendant and co-Defendant with three offenses: conspiracy to deal methamphetamine; possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine; and conspiracy to deal marijuana. Defendant filed a motion seeking an acquittal or, in the alternative, a new trial. The district court granted the second request, however, the order did not divulge the grounds for the new trial. The government had timely appealed the new trial grant. A divided panel of the Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting a new trial.   The Fifth Circuit reversed the order granting a new trial, reinstated as to Count Two and the jury’s verdict on that count (possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine). The court further remanded for sentencing on that conviction. The court explained this is not one of the “exceptional cases” in which a judge had the discretion to vacate the jury’s verdict by ordering a new trial. Far from being a case in which the evidence weighs heavily against the verdict, the great weight of the evidence supports this one. The court wrote, that the district court set aside the verdict because, in its view, little evidence showed that Defendant knowingly possessed an illegal substance. But a trinity of evidence supported the knowledge element. The court explained that it is true that the “district judge, unlike us, was there throughout the trial.” But because the jury’s verdict was not against the great weight of evidence, it was an abuse of discretion to erase it. View "USA v. Crittenden" on Justia Law

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Victor Salgado appealed a recall and resentencing under former Penal Code section 1170 (d)(1). After Salgado shot at a rival gang member but killed another, he was charged with: one count of first degree murder; one count of attempted premeditated murder; two counts of assault with a semiautomatic firearm; one count of possession of a firearm while on probation; and one count of street terrorism (active gang participation). Salgado argued the trial court erred in imposing a one-year determinate sentence on a gang enhancement, improperly calculated his custody credit, and requests this court correct clerical errors in the sentencing minute order and the abstract of judgment. The Attorney General conceded these errors, but argued the sentencing court should have imposed higher, statutorily prescribed terms on the enhancements. While this appeal was pending, Assembly Bill No. 333 (2021-2022 Reg. Sess.) (Stats. 2021, ch. 699, § 3) came into effect on January 1, 2022. Assem. Bill 333 “amended section 186.22 to impose new substantive and procedural requirements for gang allegations.” Additionally, on the same day, Assembly Bill No. 1540 (2021-2022 Reg. Sess.) (Stats. 2021, ch. 719, §§ 1-7) came into effect, and moved the recall and resentencing provisions of former section 1170(d), to new section 1170.03. Assem. Bill 1540 also clarified the Legislature’s intent that the resentencing court would “apply ameliorative laws . . . that reduce sentences or provide for judicial discretion, regardless of the date of the offense of conviction.” The Court of Appeal concluded Salgado was entitled to the benefit of Assem. Bill 333 because his criminal judgment was no longer final following the recall and resentencing. Accordingly, the Court reversed the gang offense conviction and vacated the jury’s true findings on the gang enhancement allegations. The Court remanded the matter to afford the prosecution an opportunity to retry the gang crime and related enhancements. View "California v. Salgado" on Justia Law

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The First Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court dismissing this complaint after concluding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Appellant's suit under the Anti-Injunction Act of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. 7241, holding that the district court erred in dismissing the complaint.Appellant brought a complaint against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and some of the IRS's agents alleging that Defendants violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and 26 U.S.C. 7609(f) by acquiring Appellant's personal financial information through a third-party summons process. The district court dismissed Appellant's claims for declaratory and injunctive relief for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, ruling that the Anti-Injunction Act of the Internal Revenue Code, 262 U.S.C. 7421, constituted an exception to the APA's waiver of sovereign immunity. The First Circuit vacated the judgment, holding that the Anti-Injunction Act did not bar Appellant's suit. View "Harper v. Rettig" on Justia Law

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Walker Officer Dumond began pursuing Meadows after he passed Dumond on the highway while traveling nearly 90 miles per hour. During the subsequent traffic stop, which was captured on dash-camera footage, Dumond instructed Meadows to keep his hands out of his vehicle and to open the door to his vehicle. Dumond and Meadows shouted back and forth as Meadows attempted to open his door. Once Meadows exited the vehicle, Dumond grabbed Meadows and slammed him to the ground. On the ground, Dumond kneed Meadows to try and roll him over, and Officer Wietfeldt punched Meadows multiple times. Wietfeldt fractured Meadows’s wrist while handcuffing him.Meadows sued the officers and the city under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The officers appealed the denial of their summary judgment motions based on qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The court stated that on interlocutory appeal, it is bound by the district court’s determination that a reasonable jury could conclude that Dumond and Wietfeldt did not perceive Meadows as refusing to comply or resisting arrest. The dash-camera footage does not “blatantly contradict” the factual issues identified by the district court. View "Meadows v. City of Walker, Michigan" on Justia Law

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Clark was arrested for obtaining and distributing controlled substances, including cocaine and heroin, and for selling heroin to undercover agents on three occasions, 21 U.S.C. 841(a) and 846. Clark had committed various felonies in the past, including two Tennessee convictions for possessing marijuana with the intent to sell or deliver. The Sentencing Guidelines provide for a sentencing enhancement if a defendant has “at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense.” U.S.S.G. 4B1.1(a).Clark pled guilty to the possession count. The PSR calculated Clark’s total offense level at 29, taking into account his career offender status. The Guidelines range was 151–188 months. Clark objected to his career offender designation, arguing that before Clark’s 2019 arrest, the Agriculture Improvement Act narrowed the federal definition of marijuana to exclude hemp, 21 U.S.C. 802(16). Tennessee narrowed its definition a few months later. The district court overruled Clark’s objections and sentenced Clark to 151 months of imprisonment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Guidelines’ use of the term “controlled substance” in the career offender enhancement should be defined with reference to the drug schedules in place at the time of the prior convictions at issue. View "United States v. Clark" on Justia Law

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Petitioner, a Colombian native, was arrested in Colombia on drug trafficking charges and ultimately convicted in federal court. Petitioner now appeals the denial of both his amended 28 U.S.C. Section 2255 motion to vacate his convictions and sentence and his subsequent motion to alter or amend the judgment. He claims that one of his pre-extradition attorneys was ineffective due to a conflict of interest. According to Petitioner, his attorney tried to convince him to pay a thirty-million-dollar bribe or kickback as part of a plea agreement, which would redound to the benefit of one of Petitioner’s other clients. But Petitioner was represented by other attorneys, and he does not allege that they were conflicted or otherwise deficient in pursuing legitimate plea agreements on Petitioner’s behalf. The district court held that the allegations in Petitioner’s motion would not establish a Sixth Amendment violation even if true.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that even assuming a conflict of interest existed, Petitioner’s claim ultimately fails because he does not sufficiently allege that the “conflict adversely affected his representation.” Although Petitioner criticizes his attorney, he does not allege that his other attorneys suffered under a conflict of interest. The Sixth Amendment ensures the right to effective assistance of “an attorney.” The Sixth Amendment does not include the right to receive good advice from every lawyer a criminal defendant consults about his case. Further, the court wrote, that because it concluded that Petitioner’s claim fails on the merits, it cannot say the district court abused its discretion in denying his request for an evidentiary hearing. View "Fabio Ochoa v. USA" on Justia Law

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Appellants operated for around seven years an enterprise known as “Trained to Go” (TTG) within one of West Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Appellants distributed drugs and engaged in countless acts of violence using firearms. They exercised their constitutional right to a jury trial and were convicted for their actions, including for conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). They now bring numerous challenges to their convictions and sentences, including their right to a public trial, the evidence admitted at trial, and more.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed Appellants’ convictions and sentences on all fronts, save one. The court reversed one Appellant’s Section 922(g)(1) conviction, vacated the judgment as to him, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with our opinion. The court explained that Appellants contend that any RICO conspiracy was confined to a neighborhood in Baltimore. But the government must only prove a “de minimis” effect on interstate commerce. Appellants argue that the de minimis standard does not apply to their activity because it was purely intrastate activity. But the de minimis standard does in fact apply. In Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court made clear that “when ‘a general regulatory statute bears a substantial relation to commerce, the de minimis character of individual instances arising under that statute is of no consequence.’” Construing all this evidence in the light most favorable to the government, the court found there is sufficient evidence that the conspiracy affected interstate commerce. View "US v. Montana Barronette" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted of illegally possessing an unregistered firearm, specifically a “destructive device,” under the National Firearms Act (“NFA”). Appealing his conviction, Defendant argues that the NFA is unconstitutionally vague as applied to his case and that the evidence is insufficient to support conviction.   The determinative issue on appeal was whether an explosive-containing device falls within the NFA when it is susceptible of both innocent and destructive uses and not clearly designed as a weapon. The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment of conviction. The court explained that in this case, the government’s only evidence challenging Defendant’s testimony that his bamboo stick device was used to scare beavers and destroy their dams (and wasn’t very good even at that) was the conclusion testimony of an ATF expert. Thus, the court wrote, in light of the government’s wholly conclusory case that the bamboo device was designed as a weapon or that it had no benign or social value, the conviction cannot stand. The evidence was insufficient to prove that the bamboo stick was an illegal explosive device “designed” as a weapon. View "USA v. Harbarger" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court denying Defendant's motion seeking remand to the grand jury for a redetermination of probable cause pursuant to Ariz. R. Crim. P. 12.9, holding that the trial court did not err in denying Defendant's Rule 12.9 motion.A grand jury indicted Defendant for attempted second degree murder and other crimes. Defendant subsequently filed the motion at issue, arguing that the State withheld clearly exculpatory evidence of a justification defense that it was obligated to present despite the evidence not being requested by the defense. The trial court denied the motion. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the Arizona Constitution guarantees a person under grand jury investigation a due process right to a fair and impartial presentation of clearly exculpatory evidence, and a prosecutor has a duty to present such evidence to a grand jury even in the absence of a specific request; (2) where there is evidence relevant to a justification defense that would deter a grand jury from finding probable cause the prosecutor has an obligation to present such evidence; and (3) the State failed to present clearly exculpatory evidence in this case, denying Defendant a substantial procedural right. View "Willis v. Honorable Bernini" on Justia Law

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Granthon was shot dead on a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania street corner. A day earlier, Granton had purchased an ounce of crack cocaine from Burton. Granthon “was short a couple grams” and sought a refund. The evidence linking Burton to Granthon’s death was “overwhelming.” Burton was convicted of first-degree murder. Williams was also charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy, and reckless endangerment of another but the evidence was weaker. No witness recognized Williams and no cell phone records placed him near the scene that night. Williams claimed he spent the night at a casino, but offered conflicting alibi stories and never used his casino rewards card that night. Williams’s trial lawyer’s “defense theory” was that Williams was “not placed at the scene.” He did not call Rochon, a witness at Burton’s trial whose testimony allegedly indicated that Granthon also shot a gun, nor did he make the case for self-defense or voluntary manslaughter.Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of his petition for habeas relief, rejecting claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. His trial attorney’s alleged negligence is not self-evident, as the attorney may have reasonably thought that self-defense arguments would detract from an alibi defense. To show his attorney was negligent, Williams would need to develop the record in district court but the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act forbids federal courts from supplementing the state court record under these circumstances. View "Williams v. Superintendent Mahanoy SCI" on Justia Law