Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

by
Defendant Jeffrey Lord, Sr. was convicted by jury of making criminal threats and obstructing an executive officer by threat or violence. The trial court placed him on probation for five years. He appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for making criminal threats because the threat did not cause the victim sustained fear. He further sought to have his case remanded for resentencing in light of the new two-year limit on terms of probation for certain felonies. After review, the Court of Appeal affirmed Lord’s conviction but reversed and remanded for resentencing. View "California v. Lord" on Justia Law

by
The FBI began monitoring Pitts after he made social media posts encouraging Muslims to pursue military training. Pitts expressed a desire to meet with an al-Qaeda operative; the FBI deployed an undercover agent to play that role. The two planned a bombing in downtown Cleveland. The FBI arrested Pitts after he pitched follow-up attacks in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Pitts pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, threatening the President, and threatening the President’s family and was sentenced to 168 months’ imprisonment.The Sixth Circuit rejected, as meritless, arguments that the district court improperly accepted his plea because there was no factual basis for it in the record, because he was not competent to enter it, and because he did not understand its terms. The change-of-plea proceedings, the PSR, and the affidavit attached to the complaint provided a factual basis for Pitts’s guilty plea, establishing that Pitts intended to provide material support— including his personal efforts—to al-Qaeda, that Pitts knew al-Qaeda had engaged in terrorism, and that he had made substantial steps toward the commission of the crime. The only professional opinion in the record, arranged at Pitts’s counsel’s request, found Pitts competent. There was nothing that gave the court “reasonable cause” to consider Pitts incompetent. The court did not address sentencing arguments that were barred by the appellate waiver in Pitts’s valid plea agreement. View "United States v. Pitts" on Justia Law

by
Elgin met Garbutt at an international convention. Garbutt, who holds dual citizenship, moved from Belize into Elgin’s Gary, Indiana home and worked on her successful campaign to become Trustee of Calumet Township. Elgin hired Garbutt to work at the Trustee’s Office as her “executive aide” at a salary of $60,000 per year. Garbutt’s unofficial duties included Elgin’s political campaign work. He understood that he should not perform political work at the Township Office but began to do so. Elgin also hired her friend Shelton, who also worked on Elgin’s campaign. Elgin and Garbutt had a falling out. Elgin demoted Garbutt, docked his salary barred him from attending meetings, and took away his government car. Garbutt eventually began a partnership with an FBI agent who directed him to conduct warrantless searches of his co‐workers’ offices.Elgin took a plea deal, Shelton was convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, after learning, mid‐trial, about the warrantless searches. The district court denied Shelton's post‐trial motion for relief. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The district court erred in finding that Shelton lacked any reasonable expectation of privacy in her office. Garbutt’s document collection, undertaken at the direction of the FBI, violated her Fourth Amendment rights. No warrant would have issued without the information gathered as a result of the unlawful searches; the evidence obtained from the search authorized by that warrant should have been suppressed. View "United States v. Shelton" on Justia Law

by
Four years after his release from prison, and after completing three years of supervised release, plaintiff was told he would have to serve another 27 months in jail based on an erroneous release from prison because he had a consecutive misdemeanor to serve. Plaintiff filed a writ of habeas corpus and the district court ruled that he must serve the remainder of his sentence. Plaintiff appealed, but the district court failed to act on the appeal until December 2013, at which point it dismissed the petition as moot because plaintiff had been released from jail upon completion of his sentence.Plaintiff then filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action alleging that his spontaneous incarceration deprived him of due process under the Fifth Amendment. The district court dismissed the case based on claim preclusion in light of plaintiff's prior unsuccessful habeas corpus action. The DC Circuit reversed and, on remand, the district court granted summary judgment for the District.The DC Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment that plaintiff failed to establish a pattern of constitutional violations or to demonstrate deliberate indifference. The court explained that plaintiff's evidence fails to show either that the District had a relevant custom of unconstitutional actions or that the District acted with deliberate indifference. However, the court vacated the entry of summary judgment for the District on the claim of unconstitutional policy because the nature and contours of the alleged policy present a number of disputed issues of material fact. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Hurd v. District of Columbia" on Justia Law

by
Respondent Karl Baker and his business partner sought investors for a company called Aviara Capital Partners, LLC. According to promotional materials that Baker provided to potential investors, investment money would be used to purchase distressed banks that were being shut down and were under the control of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”). In conjunction with the purchase of the distressed banks, Aviara would operate a “distressed assets fund” to purchase the assets of such banks. Aviara would then acquire additional banks under a business plan by which Aviara and its investors would collectively own eighty percent of the banks, while bank management, directors, advisors, and employees would own the other twenty percent. In the course of soliciting potential investors, Baker spoke, independently, with the purported victims in this case, Donna and Lyal Taylor, Dr. Alan Ng, and Stanley Douglas. The alleged victims’ investments did not work out as they claim to have been promised, and a grand jury subsequently indicted Baker on, among other charges, four counts of securities fraud, and three counts of theft. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the admission of a deputy securities commissioner’s expert testimony that Baker’s misstatements and omissions were material was reversible error. Because: (1) in presenting such opinions, the deputy commissioner also opined that certain disputed facts were true; (2) such testimony involved weighing the evidence and making credibility determinations, which were matters solely within the jury’s province; and (3) the error in admitting such testimony was not harmless, the Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals that the admission of this testimony was reversible error. View "Colorado v. Baker" on Justia Law

by
Shaun Lawrence met D.B. at a casino, where she worked as a cashier. During their conversations, Lawrence told D.B. that he ran several successful businesses and that he was looking for people to work for him and for investors to help grow a private investigations business called Advert Investigations (“Advert”). The parties eventually signed two “Investment and Business Agreement,” which provided that D.B. would invest cash money in exchange for an ownership interest in Advert. At no time prior to D.B.’s investments did Lawrence tell her that he would use the money to pay for personal and gambling expenses. Nor did he ever advise her that he had outstanding civil judgments against him totaling over $100,000. D.B. filed a complaint with the State Division of Securities, which subsequently referred the case to the district attorney’s office for prosecution. The State then charged Lawrence with two counts of securities fraud, and one count of theft. The jury ultimately convicted Lawrence as charged, and Lawrence appealed. In his appeal, he contended, among other things, that (1) the evidence did not establish that the transaction at issue involved a security (namely, an investment contract); (2) Colorado Securities Commissioner Rome’s expert testimony usurped the jury’s role as factfinder because the Commissioner was improperly permitted to opine on the ultimate factual issues in this case; and (3) Lawrence was entitled to the ameliorative benefit of the amendments to the theft statute and, as a result, he could only stand convicted of a class 1 misdemeanor because that was the lowest degree of theft that the jury’s verdict supported. The Colorado Supreme Court concurred with the appellate court’s determination that: (1) the agreement at issue here was an investment contract, and therefore a security; (2) Commissioner’s testimony was admissible, and any error by the trial court in admitting that testimony was harmless; and (3) the trial court erred in instructing the jury as to the value of the property taken. View "Lawrence v. Colorado" on Justia Law

by
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's order denying defendant's Penal Code section 1170.95 petition and remanded for a new evidentiary hearing under section 1170.95, subdivision (d). The court joined other Courts of Appeal in holding that, at the hearing contemplated by section 1170.95, subdivision (d), the People are required to prove to the trial court beyond a reasonable doubt that the petitioner is guilty of murder on a theory of murder valid after SB 1437's enactment. Because the trial court did not apply this standard, the court remanded for a new hearing at which the People may seek to prove to the trial court beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was the actual killer, aided and abetted the actual killer with the intent to kill, or was a major participant who acted in reckless disregard for human life. View "People v. Fortman" on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed defendant's sentence imposed after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The district court ruled that defendant had two prior convictions for controlled substance offenses and imposed an increased base offense level pursuant to USSG 2K2.1.The court concluded that South Carolina Code section 44-53-375(B)'s permissive inference does not remove the "intent to distribute" element from defendant's conviction for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Therefore, defendant's February 2003 conviction for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine under section 44-53-375(B) is categorically a controlled substance offense under the Guidelines. View "United States v. Williams" on Justia Law

by
Defendant Michael Young was charged by bill of information with simple burglary for the 2016 burglary of a B.J.’s Country Stop. The burglar entered the store by breaking the glass door with a brick. He took the cash drawer from the register and left. The store’s surveillance camera recorded the burglary. In video recorded at another Stop on the evening before the burglary, the manager of the burglarized Stop saw a male who she thought resembled the burglar, wearing a similar white t-shirt and black basketball shorts with red and white stripes just as was seen in the video of the burglary. A unanimous jury found him guilty as charged. The trial court denied defendant’s motions for post-verdict judgment of acquittal and new trial, and sentenced defendant to serve 12 years imprisonment at hard labor. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed, finding that the fact that the jurors observed the videos did not justify the exclusion of additional evidence from the defense on the question of whether defendant was the person in the videos. “That evidence was clearly relevant, and the trial court erred in excluding it. Considering the importance of the video surveillance evidence in the State’s case-in-chief, and the lack of any other evidence connecting defendant to the burglary,” the Supreme Court could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the exclusion of evidence that defendant had extensive tattoos was harmless. View "Louisiana v. Young" on Justia Law

by
Defendant James Bourgeois, an elected member of the Lafourche Parish Council, was found guilty by a unanimous jury of filing or maintaining false public records. The charge arose from the allegation that defendant had falsely asserted in his Parish Council election qualifying form that he was domiciled in Lafourche Parish. The trial court sentenced him to a suspended sentence of three years imprisonment at hard labor with two years of probation. The court of appeal reversed the conviction and vacated the sentence because it found the evidence insufficient to prove that defendant falsely represented his domicile on his qualifying form. There was no dispute that the election qualifying form was a public record and that defendant filed it. The sole question for the Louisiana Supreme Court was whether the evidence, when viewed under the due process standard of Jackson v. Virginia, was sufficient to prove the form contained a false statement with regard to defendant’s domicile. The Supreme Court determined the State’s case “was not so lacking that it should not have even been submitted to the jury. The State introduced evidence from which the jury could rationally find that defendant had abandoned his domicile in Lafourche Parish and established a new domicile in Jefferson Parish by the time he filed his election qualifying form. The jury was not forced to speculate to reach this conclusion, as the court of appeal found.” Accordingly, judgment was reversed and defendant’s conviction and sentence were reinstated. View "Louisiana v. Bourgeois" on Justia Law