Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Bridgewater pleaded guilty to soliciting an obscene visual depiction of a minor, 18 U.S.C. 2252A(a)(3)(B)(i). The Guidelines called for a mandatory minimum sentence of 60 months in prison. The district court deviated from the Guidelines to 78 months to account for a charge of attempted enticement of a minor that the government dismissed in exchange for his guilty plea. That conduct, the court found, aggravated the nature and circumstances of the offense of conviction. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting an argument that the sentence was substantively unreasonable because basing it—even in part—on dismissed conduct creates systemwide disparity. The court addressed unwarranted sentencing disparities and the lack of evidence of his recidivism and gave ample weight to the Guidelines but ultimately concluded they failed to properly reflect the scope of Bridgewater’s conduct. The court’s 18-month (or 30%) deviation did not introduce unwarranted sentence disparities among similar defendants. View "United States v. Bridgewater" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of criminal appeals affirming Defendant's conviction for burglary, holding that application of the burglary statute under the circumstances of this case did not violate due process or prosecutorial discretion. Defendant's conviction arose from her involvement in a scheme to enter a Walmart retail store, steal merchandise, and have another individual return the merchandise for a gift card. Defendant had previously been banned from Walmart retail stores for prior acts of shoplifting, and the owners of these stores had issued documents to Defendant precluding Defendant from entering the stores. The State sought an indictment against Defendant for burglary rather than criminal trespass, reasoning that Defendant entered Walmart without the effective consent of the owner and committed a theft therein. Defendant appealed her burglary conviction, arguing that the burglary statute is unconstitutionally vague as applied to the extent that it implicates due process rights. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the language of the statute criminalizing burglary is clear and unambiguous on its face; (2) the statute is not unconstitutionally vague as applied, and nothing in the statute precludes its application to the fact scenario in this case; and (3) the prosecutor did not exceed her discretion in interpreting and applying the statute. View "State v. Welch" on Justia Law

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Faber pled guilty to receiving pornographic images of minors and was sentenced to prison. Faber transitioned to supervised release, with conditions barring him from possessing sexually explicit images and from possessing or using digital devices. Faber eventually moved into an apartment with Gieszer. Probation officers visited their apartment and discovered that Faber had electronic devices without permission, containing sexually explicit material. Gieszer denied that either he or Faber had any digital devices and tried to hide the devices. The district court sentenced Faber to another prison term followed by supervised release, with a condition that Faber not have contact with Gieszer. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Meanwhile, Faber filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against his probation officer, alleging violation of his religious freedom by separating him from Gieszer (Faber’s spouse in their Wicca religion). The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Faber unsuccessfully filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. 2255 and a second section 1983 suit. The district court again revoked Faber’s supervised release because he communicated with Gieszer by email and sentenced him to imprisonment with supervised release, continuing the “no contact” condition. Faber did not appeal but later moved to eliminate the no-contact order under 18 U.S.C. 3583(e)(2), citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Sixth Circuit ordered the dismissal of the motion for lack of jurisdiction. Section 3583(e)(2) allows a court to modify or rescind a condition of supervised release only within 14 days. View "United States v. Faber" on Justia Law

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Hendricks was convicted conspiracy to provide and attempt to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, 18 U.S.C. 2339B(a)(1), in the form of personnel and services to ISIS. At trial, four witnesses had testified that Hendricks approached them about forming a group for the purpose of waging jihad in the U.S. Hendricks shared that he had purchased land and weapons for his group, occasionally asking whether they owned guns or suggesting that they should be trained to fight or operate weapons. Hendricks also exhorted each to recruit other like-minded individuals. The witnesses perceived Hendricks to be “build[ing] . . . an extension of [ISIS] in America.” Hendricks had similar interactions with an undercover FBI agent. An expert on terrorism testified that Hendricks’s interactions were consistent with the ISIS strategy at the time. Hendricks did not present any witnesses or evidence. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the convictions, rejecting arguments that the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he attempted or conspired to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and that the district court abused its discretion by partially closing the courtroom during testimony from an undercover FBI agent. View "United States v. Hendricks" on Justia Law

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James Turner pled guilty in 2007 to voluntary manslaughter, and admitted a gang allegation. While he was serving his 21- year prison term, the California Legislature enacted Senate Bill No. 1437 making certain changes to murder liability under felony-murder and natural-and-probable-consequences theories and provided a procedure for eligible defendants to petition for recall and resentencing. Turner filed a petition pursuant to newly enacted Penal Code section 1170.95(a), but the trial court summarily denied relief on the ground that he was ineligible as someone who "was not convicted of murder." On appeal, Turner argued section 1170.95 applied to defendants who were charged with murder under a felony-murder or natural-and-probable-consequences theory but pleaded guilty to manslaughter to avoid trial. The Court of Appeal found no ambiguity in the plain language of Senate Bill 1437 as to whether a defendant convicted of manslaughter was entitled to relief. Turner relied on language in section 1170.95 (a)(2) to suggest ambiguity existed. “But even if he were correct, the legislative history demonstrates that Turner is not entitled to relief.” Because the trial court did not err in summarily denying Turner's petition, the Court affirmed its order. View "California v. Turner" on Justia Law

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Bridges, a Cook County Department of Corrections pretrial detainee, fell out of the upper bunk to which he had been assigned and injured himself. He sued, asserting that his injuries were caused by the defendants’ practice of ignoring medically necessary lower bunk prescriptions. Bridges cited five lawsuits filed by detainees who alleged that, between 2005 and 2012, they were injured when using upper bunks after their lower bunk prescriptions were ignored. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. A local government may not be sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents; it is when the execution of a government’s policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the governmental entity is responsible under section 1983. The Department houses thousands of detainees, with hundreds entering and leaving on a daily basis; three or five incidents over a seven-year period is inadequate as a matter of law to demonstrate a widespread custom or practice. Nothing connected the incidents and they were not so common as to place the defendants on notice of a widespread practice. View "Bridges v. Dart" on Justia Law

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Picardi, a former Customs and Border Protection Officer at the international terminal of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, was convicted of embezzlement by an officer or employee of the United States, 18 U.S.C. 654 and was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment and a fine of $100,000. He had stolen from a traveler who was referred for a secondary inspection. While out on bond, Picardi harassed his estranged wife using electronic and other means and engaged a private detective in his efforts, falsely telling the man that he was a customs officer conducting a legitimate investigation. After Picardi was convicted, he enlisted a friend to approach his victim’s adult daughter to persuade her to convince her mother to recant her testimony. Because Picardi waived any argument regarding the amount of the fine and the adequacy of the explanation of the fine, the Seventh Circuit dismissed his appeal. Picardi and his lawyer knew what was at stake: the maximum under the Guidelines was $40,000, and the probation department recommendation was $100,000. This was not simply an inadvertent failure to object to the imposition of an above-Guidelines fine; it was a calculated, strategic decision, based on a hope that it would work to the client’s benefit on the custody determination. View "United States v. Picardi" on Justia Law

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Ali shot and killed three people during an attempted robbery in Minneapolis. He was given three consecutive life sentences, each permitting his early release after 30 years so that Ali must remain in prison for at least 90 years. Relying on recent Supreme Court precedent, Ali argued that the Eighth Amendment forbids life-without-parole sentences for juvenile defendants unless they are irreparably corrupt and that a sentencing court must conduct a hearing to consider the juvenile defendant’s youth as a mitigating factor before imposing a life-without-parole sentence. Ali claimed his sentence was the “functional equivalent” of life-without-parole. The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected Ali’s argument. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the denial of Ali’s petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254. Ali’s case is distinguishable from the Supreme Court cases; Ali received three life sentences for three separate murders, each permitting possible release. Ali does not face a life-without-parole sentence and the Supreme Court has not “clearly established” that its ruling apply to consecutive sentences functionally equivalent to life-without-parole. View "Ali v. Roy" on Justia Law

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Following a guilty plea to possession of heroin with intent to distribute, the court sentenced Hamilton to 81 months imprisonment. Hamilton’s PSR criminal history score, used to calculate his Guidelines range, included a previous Illinois felony conviction for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The Eighth Circuit vacated Hamilton’s sentence because part of the Illinois statute of conviction had been declared unconstitutional. At resentencing, the district court stated that the scope of resentencing was limited to Hamilton’s previous Illinois conviction and concluded that this conviction was properly part of Hamilton’s criminal history score because Hamilton was convicted under a statutory provision that remained in effect. The court reimposed the 81-month sentence. The Eighth Circuit vacated. The court rejected Hamilton’s argument that, in determining his criminal history score, the court relied on documents that did not satisfy precedent to determine that Hamilton had a valid conviction for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The court examined an Order Assessing Fines, Fees and Costs, and the official charging document, which conclusively demonstrated that Hamilton was not convicted under the invalidated subsection. The district court was not limited on remand to consideration of only the Illinois conviction. Failure to understand the scope of authority and discretion at sentencing is a significant procedural error. The district court was not prohibited from considering Hamilton’s attempt to challenge the PSR’s statement of relevant conduct and the government’s original request for an upward departure or variance. View "United States v. Hamilton" on Justia Law

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A “confidential reliable informant” told police that Oliver and his co-conspirators would mail packages of cocaine to Minnesota from Maricopa, Arizona. The postal inspector found one package from Maricopa, Arizona and another with similar handwriting from Chandler, Arizona. With a search warrant, officers found cocaine inside each. The informant stated that Oliver would be transporting cocaine in a BMW that would arrive in Minneapolis on November 30, 2014. On that date, police stopped and impounded a BMW that belonged to Oliver. Days later, with a warrant, police searched the vehicle and discovered six kilograms of cocaine, and executed a warrant to search Oliver's hotel room, where they recovered cell phones but no drugs. Oliver’s co-conspirator (Williams) testified that he made multiple trips to Arizona at Oliver’s request to transport cash for buying drugs and that in November 2014, he and another co-conspirator each mailed cocaine from different towns in Arizona at Oliver’s direction. Convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Oliver was sentenced to 204 months' imprisonment. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, rejecting claims that the government’s key witness—Williams—lacked credibility and that the district court erred in denying Oliver's motions to dismiss the second indictment, to disclose the identity of the informant, and to suppress the searches of his BMW and hotel room. Williams also unsuccessfully argued that the court should have given the jury an accomplice instruction regarding Williams’s testimony and that he was prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel. View "United States v. Oliver" on Justia Law