Articles Posted in Delaware Supreme Court

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Based upon an informant’s tip and some “largely unproductive surveillance activity,” two Wilmington police detectives applied for a warrant to search Lamont Valentine’s apartment and automobile for evidence that Valentine, a convicted violent felon, was in possession of a firearm or ammunition. A magistrate issued the warrant, and when the officers conducted the search, they found marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and ammunition in the apartment and a firearm in the vehicle. These discoveries and other information provided by another resident of the apartment building resulted in numerous criminal charges against Valentine, including possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, drug dealing, aggravated possession of marijuana, terroristic threatening, and conspiracy. Valentine moved to suppress the fruits of the search on the grounds that the warrant affidavit and application did not establish probable cause that he had committed or was committing the offense of unlawfully possessing a firearm or that evidence of that crime was likely to be found in his apartment or car. The Superior Court denied the motion, and Valentine was eventually convicted of drug dealing, aggravated possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and endangering the welfare of a child. He appealed to challenge the Superior Court’s denial of his suppression motion. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court agreed with Valentine that the warrant application was insufficient to support a finding of probable cause that he had committed or was committing the crime identified in the warrant, or that a firearm was in his apartment or car. Accordingly, Valentine’s convictions were reversed. View "Valentine v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In this case, a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) recipient, Cindy Gonzalez, was found to have defrauded the federal government of $6,159 worth of SNAP benefits by representing that she lived alone and did not receive any income, when in fact she was not living alone and was receiving income. After discovering this wrongdoing, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (“DHSS”) brought an administrative proceeding against Gonzalez to disqualify her from continued participation in SNAP and claw back the benefits she received through her misrepresentations. The hearing officer found that DHSS had established intentional program violations and disqualified Gonzalez from continued participation in SNAP for one year, and DHSS’s audit and recovery arm assessed an overpayment of $6,159, which the federal government has started to collect by offsetting the other federal benefits she receives against her SNAP obligations. About five months after the DHSS final decision, the State of Delaware brought a civil action against Gonzalez under Delaware common law and the Delaware False Claims and Reporting Act based on the same circumstances underlying the DHSS administrative proceeding. This time, however, the State sought between approximately $200,000 and $375,000 in restitution, damages, and penalties; attorneys’ fees and costs; and an order enjoining Gonzalez from participating in SNAP until she pays the judgment. Gonzalez in turn filed an answer asserting an affirmative defense that federal law preempted the State’s Delaware law claims, and the State moved for judgment on the pleadings. The Superior Court granted the State’s motion, holding that federal law did not preempt the State’s claims. Gonzalez brought an interlocutory appeal of that determination. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed, finding federal law prohibited the State from bringing consecutive administrative and civil actions against a SNAP recipient based on the same fraud. View "Gonzalez v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Appellant Justin Burrell, who was three months shy of his eighteenth birthday at the time the crimes were committed, was convicted by jury of first-degree murder, manslaughter, first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, second-degree conspiracy, and four counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (“PFDCF”). He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of probation or parole for the first-degree-murder charge plus 50 years’ imprisonment for the remaining charges. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which declared unconstitutional mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. In response to this ruling, the Delaware General Assembly enacted legislation modifying the juvenile sentencing scheme. At his resentencing, Burrell did not contest the applicability of the new 11 Del. C. Section 4209A’s 25- year minimum mandatory sentence to his first-degree-murder conviction, but argued that the court should not impose any additional statutory minimum mandatory incarceration for his five other convictions (first-degree robbery, second-degree burglary, and the three counts of PFDCF) on the grounds that such additional sentences would run afoul of Miller. The Superior Court disagreed and resentenced Burrell to the minimum mandatory 25 years’ imprisonment for the first-degree-murder charge plus an additional minimum mandatory 12 years’ incarceration for the other offenses. Burrell broadens his challenge to the Delaware Supreme Court, arguing the Superior Court erred when it imposed the 25-year minimum mandatory sentence for the first-degree-murder charge and the additional 12 years for the companion offenses. Further, he claimed the sentencing statutes were unconstitutionally “overbroad.” Finding no abuse of discretion or other reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed Burrell's convictions and sentences. View "Burrell v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Appellant Aaron Thompson appealed after a jury found him guilty of two counts of first degree murder, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and first degree conspiracy. The charges arose from the double homicide of Joseph and Olga Connell, who were shot to death in 2013. The State’s theory of the case at trial was that Mr. Connell’s business partner, Chris Rivers, paid to have the Connells killed so he could collect on an insurance policy listing Mr. Connell as the insured and Rivers as the beneficiary. The theory was that Rivers paid Joshua Bey, who in turn hired Dominique Benson and Thompson to carry out the murders. The success of the State’s theory at Thompson’s trial largely depended on the testimony and credibility of Bey. Thompson contended throughout the trial that Bey was lying and made up the connection with Thompson to get himself a favorable plea deal. On appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court, Thompson argued: (1) two statements by the State during its rebuttal argument constituted prosecutorial misconduct that undermined the fairness of the trial; and (2) the trial court abused its discretion in allowing Bey’s recorded statement to the police to be played for the jury following his testimony, arguing that this was inadmissible hearsay not subject to an exception. The Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed Thompson's convictions. View "Thompson v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Appellant Kevin Walker appealed a Superior Court order finding that he violated the terms of his probation. Walker began probation on May 10, 2017, as a result of a felony driving- under-the-influence conviction. On June 1, the State received a tip from a past-proven reliable informant that Walker had heroin in his home that he planned to distribute. On June 5, Delaware probation officers conducted an administrative search of Walker’s residence pursuant to an administrative warrant. During the search, probation officers discovered 252 bags of heroin, drug paraphernalia, and a locked safe. When the safe was taken to the Delaware State Police, they found a loaded handgun, five doses of Suboxone, and five grams of marijuana. Walker was thereafter arrested and taken to the Sussex Correctional Institution; at the SCI facility, offers found 86 bags of heroin and nine grams of crack cocaine inside Walker's rectum. Walker moved to suppress all the evidence found as the result of the administrative search. The Superior Court determined the search was not conducted in accordance with 11 Del. C. 4321(d) and Procedure 7.19. In particular, it found there was a lack of detail concerning the informant’s tip and that no effort was made at all to corroborate the tip or consider the reason why the informant was supplying information. The State did not appeal the suppression order, instead, dismissing the criminal action against Walker, but continued to pursue a violation of probation. The Delaware Supreme Court found that probation officers are not required to “satisfy each technical requirement of the search and seizure regulations of the Department of Correction” for a search to be reasonable. The Court concluded that the "proper and orderly administration of justice called for suppression, and reversed the Superior Court. View "Walker v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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In July 2015, police officers stopped Javier Ayala for driving a vehicle with a suspended license. During a search of his vehicle and a subsequent search of his home under a previously issued warrant, officers found a .22-caliber pistol and 1,286 bags of heroin. The net weight of the bags’ contents was approximately 15 grams. In separate trials, two juries convicted Ayala of multiple charges relating to the contraband police found in Ayala’s home and vehicle. Because Ayala had been previously convicted of four other felonies, the Superior Court declared Ayala to be a habitual offender and sentenced him to a mandatory minimum prison term of seven years and six months. On appeal, Ayala challenged his convictions and sentence, contending: (1) the Superior Court abused its discretion when it admitted evidence regarding the identity and weight of the substance in the bags seized from his home and vehicle because the chemist who tested the suspected heroin bags did not lay a proper foundation for the admission of her hypergeometric-testing results; and (2) as a matter of law, he should not have been adjudged a habitual offender because the offenses forming the basis of three of his predicate felony convictions were no longer felonies when he was sentenced in this case. Finding no abuse of discretion, and that the habitual offender sentence enhancement was properly applied, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed Ayala's conviction and sentence. View "Ayala v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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A grand jury indicted Everett Urquhart for the armed robbery of a corner grocery store in Wilmington, Delaware. In the five months before trial, three different public defenders represented Urquhart at preliminary court hearings. A fourth public defender would be his trial counsel, assigned to defend Urquhart against charges carrying a lengthy minimum prison sentence. Because of a trial the preceding week, and other professional commitments before that, Urquhart’s trial counsel did not meet with Urquhart to prepare for trial. The morning of trial was also the first time trial counsel showed Urquhart the State’s key evidence against him. Before jury selection, Urquhart expressed frustration and confusion to the court about seeing his trial counsel for essentially the first time the morning of trial and seeing the State’s evidence against him. Trial went ahead, and a jury convicted Urquhart of all charges. The judge sentenced him to fifteen years in prison. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the convictions on direct appeal. Urquhart moved for post-conviction relief, claiming his trial counsel’s absence before trial denied him his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel. The Superior Court denied the motion. The question presented for the Delaware Supreme Court's review was whether a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel in a serious felony trial requires more than the mere presence of a defense attorney the day of trial. The Court found that it did, reversed Urquhart’s conviction, and remanded for a new trial. View "Urquhart v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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A grand jury indicted Everett Urquhart for the armed robbery of a corner grocery store in Wilmington, Delaware. Urquhart needed a public defender. In the five months before trial, three different public defenders represented Urquhart at preliminary court hearings. A fourth public defender served as trial counsel, assigned to defend Urquhart against charges carrying a lengthy minimum prison sentence. The morning of trial was the first time trial counsel met with and showed Urquhart the State’s key evidence against him. Before jury selection, Urquhart expressed frustration and confusion to the court about seeing his trial counsel for essentially the first time the morning of trial and seeing the State’s evidence against him. Trial went ahead, and a Superior Court jury convicted Urquhart of all charges. The judge sentenced him to fifteen years in prison. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the convictions on direct appeal. Urquhart moved for post-conviction relief, and claimed that his trial counsel’s absence before trial denied him his Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel. The Superior Court denied the motion. The Delaware Supreme Court concluded a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel in a serious felony trial requires more than the mere presence of a defense attorney the day of trial. Urquhart’s conviction was reversed, and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Urquhart v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant Justin Parker appealed his conviction and sentence for theft of a motor vehicle, felony theft, and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. All of the charges against Parker stemmed from one night where Parker and another man entered a lot that housed various vehicles, pointed a gun at the guard and locked him in a portable toilet, and then loaded a container with several vehicles, which they then stole. On appeal, Parker argued his sentences for both theft of a motor vehicle and felony theft violated double jeopardy because the vehicles at issue in each count were stolen on the same occasion and were part of one course of action by Parker. The Delaware Supreme Court was presented with two issues for resolution by this appeal: (1) as a general matter, whether theft of a motor vehicle and felony theft the “same offense” for double jeopardy purposes; and (2) even if they were, can the two charges be separated in this particular case because they were associated with different stolen items, even though the items were stolen at the same time and place? The Court held theft of a motor vehicle was indeed the same offense as felony theft for double jeopardy purposes and that the two charges could not be separated in this case. The Court therefore vacated Parker’s sentence and remanded for resentencing. View "Parker v. Delaware" on Justia Law

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Defendant Rydell Mills appealed his convictions and sentence for various offenses, including cocaine and heroin drug dealing and two counts of resisting arrest with force or violence. These convictions arose from a single incident in which two police officers caught Mills in a dark alley with a digital scale in his hands, Mills resisted the two officers’ arrest, and the police ultimately found a substantial amount of cocaine and smaller amount of heroin nearby. Mills argued on appeal: (1) when a defendant resists the attempt of multiple officers to arrest him, the multiplicity doctrine prohibits the State from dividing the resisting arrest offense into separate counts for each officer, as what occurred in this case; (2) convictions for resisting arrest with force or violence and heroin drug dealing could not stand because the State used the resisting arrest offense as an aggravating factor to elevate the drug dealing offense to a higher felony grade; and (3) the trial court erred by omitting from its jury instruction for heroin drug dealing the required element that he intended to deliver the heroin. The Delaware supreme Court held that convicting a defendant of separate counts of resisting arrest with force or violence based solely on the number of arresting officers violated the multiplicity doctrine drawn from the Double Jeopardy Clauses of the United States and Delaware Constitutions; the Delaware General Assembly intended one count per arrest, not one count per officer. It was therefore multiplicitous to convict Mills twice when the charges arose solely from two officers’ joint attempt to arrest him at the same time and place. Furthermore, the Court held a defendant could be sentenced for both resisting arrest with force or violence and aggravated drug dealing, even when the resisting arrest offense is a necessary aggravating factor for the drug dealing conviction. As to the last issue, the Court held the omission in the jury instruction was plain error, “[a]lthough it is regrettable that defense counsel missed the mistake below, this omission of a critical element of the drug dealing offense is glaring and fundamental enough to require reversal even under a plain error standard of review, especially given that the omission was prejudicial under the circumstances of this case.” The Court therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part defendant’s convictions, vacated his sentence, and remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings. View "Mills v. Delaware" on Justia Law