Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Officer Cowick’s informant informed Cowick that she believed that Gholston was about to pick up large quantities of methamphetamine using his green pickup truck. At least three months later, Cowick spotted Gholston’s green pickup truck, followed Gholston, and activated his lights when Gholston turned without using a signal. Gholston parked and was walking away, which heightened Cowick’s suspicions but eventually returned. Cowick handcuffed Gholston at 12:18 am and began writing a ticket. Dispatch informed Cowick that Gholston’s ID was valid but that he had a Notice of Violation for improperly parking over a year earlier. At 12:24:23 am, Cowick called for a K9 officer, Saalborn, and requested assistance in delivering the Notice to the traffic stop. Sargent Elbus responded that he could bring the Notice. Cowick told Elbus, “take your time!!” because he was “trying to get” Saalborn While completing the ticket, Cowick continued to urge Elbus to move slowly and to urge Saalborn to “drive fast.” Cowick printed Gholston’s ticket at 12:32:27, then realized that he had not asked Gholston for insurance information. Gholston did not have proof of insurance. Cowick returned to his car to write another ticket. As Cowick was finishing that ticket, Saalborn arrived; his drug-sniffing dog alerted as the ticket was printing. The officers searched the truck and discovered nine grams of methamphetamine.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of Gholston’s motion to suppress. Cowick did not unreasonably extend the stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment; his failure to request Gholston’s insurance information at the start of the stop was a good-faith blunder. View "United States v. Gholston" on Justia Law

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McHaney participated in at least four armed cellular phone store robberies around Chicago. While attempting a fifth, he was arrested. He was charged with Hobbs Act conspiracy (18 U.S.C. 1951(a)); four counts of Hobbs Act robbery (18 U.S.C. 1951(a)); attempted Hobbs Act robbery (18 U.S.C. 1951(a)); three counts of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence (18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A)); using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence (18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A)); and possession of a firearm by a felon (18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). The district court denied McHaney’s motion to dismiss the 18 U.S.C. 924(c) counts, finding that Hobbs Act robbery qualifies as a crime of violence under section 924(c)(3)(A). McHaney entered into a plea agreement and was sentenced to 177 months’ imprisonment.The Seventh Circuit affirmed, declining to reject its precedent that Hobbs Act robbery meets the definition of a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) and is a qualifying predicate crime under the statute. Putting any person in fear in the context of robbery necessarily involves “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” “Every other court of appeals to have considered this agrees with this conclusion.” View "United States v. McHaney" on Justia Law

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After wrecking his car while intoxicated, Ziegler falsely, unsuccessfully claimed to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney in an attempt to avoid charges and retrieve his impounded car. He made those claims to deputies, the magistrate judge, and the towing company. In his prosecution for impersonating a federal officer, 18 U.S.C. 912.1, Ziegler, though not a lawyer waived his right to counsel and represented himself.The Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction, rejecting Ziegler’s claims that the court erred in permitting Ziegler to represent himself because he was incapable of doing so and failed to make necessary inquiries into his mental competency and that the evidence does not show that he “acted” as a federal officer. The district judge thoughtfully evaluated Ziegler’s request to represent himself. The public defender, initially appointed to Ziegler’s case, said that he did not “have any questions with [Ziegler’s] legal competency” based on Ziegler’s “base of experience.” The court repeatedly counseled Ziegler that he should allow the public defender to represent him. Ziegler claimed to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney and told police officers that, as a result of this position, the officers lacked jurisdiction over him, the charges would get dismissed, and he did not need a license. This is a sufficient show of authority to “act” as an official. View "United States v. Ziegler" on Justia Law

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The court of appeal affirmed Lopez's convictions for murder and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. The trial court abused its discretion in concealing the prospective jurors' names from the attorneys but the error was harmless. It is a generally accepted practice for courts to refer to jurors by their badge numbers during voir dire to protect their privacy. Courts must be careful to make clear to jurors there is a reason for the procedure other than possible safety concerns relating to the defendant. The trial court erred in advising prospective jurors that the court was referring to them by numbers in part for security reasons; jurors could speculate that Lopez posed a security risk. The court withheld from the attorneys the jurors’ names out of concern that attorneys (or members of the public or press) would obtain additional information about the jurors online or contact the jurors. Absent a compelling case-specific need to conceal the names from the attorneys, that was an abuse of discretion. The court upheld the denial of the motion to exclude Lopez’s admission, in a jail call with his sister, that he had killed someone. View "People v. Lopez" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Matthew Maley appealed a district court’s denial of his 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion. Maley was convicted in New Mexico of various conspiracy and drug offenses as well as possession of a firearm by a felon, for which he was sentenced to 262 months’ imprisonment on the drug-related counts and 120 months’ imprisonment on the felon-in-possession count to run concurrently. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions on direct appeal, rejecting the argument that he was denied his choice of counsel when the district court denied his fourth motion for a continuance and required his then-counsel to proceed to trial. Maley also faced charges in Arizona based upon evidence found in the travel trailer. In that case, however, Arizona counsel filed a motion to suppress which was granted and ultimately the charges were dismissed. In his section 2255 motion, Maley argued that had his New Mexico counsel filed a motion to suppress, it likely would have been granted and he would not have been convicted on the felon in possession of a firearm count. The district court granted a certificate of appealability on: (1) whether law enforcement officers had probable cause to believe that Maley would be found within the travel trailer he was using as his residence when they entered it on November 17, 2013, with a valid warrant for his arrest; and (2) if probable cause was lacking, whether the failure of New Mexico trial counsel to seek suppression of the evidence constituted ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC). Finding no reversible error in the district court judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "United States v. Maley" on Justia Law

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Petitioner-Appellant John William Childers, then-incarcerated in Oklahoma, appealed a district court’s denial of his pro se 28 U.S.C. 2254 petition for habeas relief. Childers was convicted of violating two provisions of Oklahoma’s Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA) for living within 2,000 feet of a school and for failing to update his address. He was serving two consecutive life sentences for these convictions. After seeking post-conviction relief in state court, Childers sought federal habeas relief, arguing, among other things, that his life sentences were the result of an impermissible retroactive application of SORA’s provisions in violation of the ex post facto clause of the Oklahoma Constitution. The district court determined that Childers’s section 2254 petition was time-barred and denied relief. The Tenth Circuit, however, granted a Certificate of Appealability (COA), concluding that “[r]easonable jurists could debate whether . . . Childers has advanced a colorable claim of actual innocence” to overcome the time-bar. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the district court’s procedural ruling was correct and that Childers did not raise a claim of actual innocence before the district court or in his application for a COA. Accordingly, the Court disagreed that a COA should have been granted. Even were this not the case, Childers’s ex post facto arguments on appeal changed substantially from those he presented in his COA application. The Court therefore declined to consider Childers’s new arguments because they exceeded the scope of the COA. View "Childers v. Crow" on Justia Law

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Pruitt pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). His PSR recommended a six-level enhancement, U.S.S.G. 3A1.2(c)(1), for “assault[ing]” a police officer “in a manner creating a substantial risk of serious bodily injury.” Officer Morton testified that he stopped the car in which Pruitt was a passenger. Pruitt, with a firearm visible in his hand, began to run. When Morton caught him, Pruitt attempted to grab Morton’s service weapon while holding his own firearm, then broke free and ran, turning back toward Morton. Morton, believing that Pruitt was about to shoot, fired his weapon, striking Pruitt in the hand. Although Morton's body-camera footage shows that Pruitt was holding his gun by the barrel, Morton testified that he believed Pruitt was holding the gun “the way you traditionally hold the gun.” It is not clear from the video if Pruitt ever pointed his firearm at Morton.The court applied the enhancement and imposed a sentence of 92 months’ imprisonment. The Sixth Circuit vacated. Bodily injury is not a prerequisite to the application of the enhancement but the decision does not make clear why the court found the enhancement applied. Although the district court referred to “assaultive behavior,” it is not clear what conduct the court determined constituted the assault element of the enhancement and why the court found that conduct met the definition of assault. View "United States v. Pruitt" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Eric Martinez appealed a district court’s imposition of a 27-month sentence for his burglary conviction under the Indian Major Crimes Act. In February 2016, Martinez and two accomplices burglarized a residence within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in McKinley County, New Mexico. During the burglary, Martinez used a hammer to break a hole in the front door near the doorknob to gain entry to the residence. He and his accomplices took valuable items from the residence, including electronics, jewelry, and ceremonial shawls and robes. Martinez ultimately pled guilty to an “assimilated” New Mexico burglary offense under N.M. Stat. Ann. 30-16-3. At sentencing, Martinez argued that federal law permitted the district court to impose a conditional discharge, which would allow a term of probation without entry of a judgment of conviction -- a sentence possible had his case been adjudicated in New Mexico state court. He also objected to a two-level sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2B2.1(b)(4) for possessing a dangerous weapon on the basis that he did not use the hammer as a weapon during the burglary. The district court rejected these arguments. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Martinez’s conviction and sentence. View "United States v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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The 1986 mandatory-minimum penalties for possession with intent to distribute cocaine were based on drug quantity: a five-year mandatory minimum was triggered by either five grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powder cocaine; a 10-year mandatory minimum was triggered by either 50 grams of crack or five kilograms of powder. In 2008, Terry pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of crack. The district court determined that his offense involved about four grams of crack and sentenced Terry, as a career offender, to 188 months' imprisonment. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 subsequently increased the crack quantity thresholds from five grams to 28 for the five-year mandatory minimum and to 280 grams for the 10-year mandatory minimum. The change became retroactive in the 2018 First Step Act.The Eleventh Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Terry’s motion for resentencing. An offender is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act only if convicted of a crack offense that triggered a mandatory minimum sentence. The Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory penalties for offenses that triggered mandatory minimum penalties because a person charged with the same conduct today no longer would face the same statutory penalties that they would have faced before 2010; the Act did not modify the statutory penalties for Terry’s offense. Before 2010, a person charged with Terry’s offense—knowing or intentional possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of a schedule I or II drug—was subject to statutory penalties of imprisonment of 0-to-20 years. After 2010, a person charged with this conduct is subject to the same statutory penalties. View "Terry v. United States" on Justia Law

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In its 2019 “Rehaif” decision, the Supreme Court clarified that for 18 U.S.C. 922(g) firearms-possession offenses, the prosecution must prove both that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and that he knew he was a felon when he possessed the firearm. Before Rehaif, the petitioners were convicted under section 922(g)(1). The Eleventh Circuit rejected Greer's request for a new trial based on the court’s failure to instruct the jury that Greer had to know he was a felon to be found guilty. The Fourth Circuit agreed that Gary's guilty plea must be vacated because the court failed to advise him that, if he went to trial, a jury would have to find that he knew he was a felon.The Supreme Court affirmed Greer's conviction and reversed as to Gary. A Rehaif error is not a basis for plain-error relief unless the defendant makes a sufficient argument that he would have presented evidence at trial that he did not know he was a felon. A defendant who has “an opportunity to object” to an alleged error and fails to do so forfeits the claim of error. If a defendant later raises the forfeited claim, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b)’s plain-error standard applies. Rehaif errors occurred during the underlying proceedings and the errors were plain but Greer must show that, if the court had correctly instructed the jury, there is a “reasonable probability” that he would have been acquitted; Gary must show that, if the court had correctly advised him, there is a “reasonable probability” that he would not have pled guilty. They have not carried that burden. Both had multiple prior felony convictions. The Court rejected arguments that Rehaif errors are “structural” and require automatic vacatur. View "Greer v. United States" on Justia Law