Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Louisiana Supreme Court

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Defendant Kelly Folse, a veterinarian, was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, and illegal use of a weapon, arising from the allegation she shot her neighbor’s dog in River Ridge. Defendant was arrested and her home was searched pursuant to arrest and search warrants. Her iPhone was seized at the time of her arrest. Access to the phone was locked by a passcode. Police obtained a search warrant to extract and examine the contents of the phone. At some point, she was informed that police had a search warrant for the phone but they would return it to her after she provided the passcode and they extracted a copy of its contents. However, the 10-day period provided in La.C.Cr.P. art. 163(C) had passed at that time. Under circumstances that were not well developed at the evidentiary hearing, defendant ultimately provided her passcode, her data was extracted, and her phone returned to her. Defendant moved to suppress the contents of the phone because the warrant had expired at the time the phone was searched. The district court found that the warrant could not be executed because the 10-day period provided in La.C.Cr.P. art. 163(C) had passed. However, because defendant, with the assistance of counsel, consented to the search by providing her passcode in exchange for the return of her phone, the district court denied defendant’s motion to suppress. The court of appeal held that defendant’s consent to search her phone was not free and voluntary because it was given only after an officer asserted that she had a warrant to search the phone. The Louisiana Supreme Court could not say after review of the trial court record, whether defendant merely acquiesced to a claim of lawful authority, or validly consented to provide her passcode in exchange for the phone. As such, the Court reversed the appellate court's order and remanded to the district court for further findings on whether evidence ought to be suppressed. View "Louisiana v. Folse" on Justia Law

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Defendant Darrell Thomas was unequivocally identified by both Traavis and Stephan Harris as the person who exited a black SUV and started firing at them. The shooting took place near the Take-a-Bag store on Milam Street in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2010. Traavis’s right leg was amputated because of the shooting. Defendant was ultimately convicted by jury of attempted first degree murder, and the district court sentenced him as a second-felony offender to serve 55 years imprisonment at hard labor without parole eligibility. Just over one month after trial, defendant through new counsel filed a motion for new trial claiming that Cordarly Chapple arrived with defendant and the Taylors in the SUV, and that Chapple was the real shooter. According to defendant, Rhonisha and Rhonda would have identified Chapple if trial counsel had asked them. Defendant also provided the district court with an affidavit by Chapple in which he claimed he was the shooter and that defendant was innocent. After the district court denied the motion for new trial, the court of appeal affirmed the conviction and sentence. An application for post-conviction relief (PCR) was successful, however, with the PCR court determining defendant was entitled to a new trial on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Louisiana Supreme Court determined the PCR court erred in failing to correctly apply a deferential "Strickland" standard. Defendant's new trial order was vacated, and his conviction and sentence reinstated. View "Louisiana v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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Defendant Brian Hughes was arrested in the parking lot of Grant Junior High School, near Dry Prong, Louisiana. A search incident to arrest revealed a plastic bag in defendant’s pocket, which contained a substance that appeared to be crystal methamphetamine. The Grant Parish Sheriff’s office determined that the substance weighed 2.3 grams. The substance was sent to the North Louisiana Crime Lab for chemical testing. The Crime Lab determined it was methamphetamine. At the Crime Lab, however, the methamphetamine weighed 1.73 grams. Defendant was found guilty as charged of possession of methamphetamine, La.R.S. 40:967 (which at the time of the crime did not differentiate the offense into grades by weights less than 28 grams), and sentenced to five years imprisonment at hard labor. The court of appeal reversed the conviction because it found the evidence insufficient to support it. Specifically, the court of appeal found “that the weight discrepancy of the substance measured by the Grant Parish Sheriff’s Department (2.3 grams) and the weight recorded by the analyst at the Crime Lab (1.73 grams) provided reasonable doubt as to whether the lab received and analyzed the same evidence taken from Defendant’s pocket.” The Louisiana Supreme Court determined the state established the chain of custody at trial, and the jury could reasonably conclude that the substance seized from the defendant was the substance tested by the crime lab and introduced as evidence at trial, the discrepancy in the weights notwithstanding. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal’s decision, and reinstated the conviction and sentence, which were affirmed. View "Louisiana v. Hughes" on Justia Law

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After his second trial, appellant Jeffrey Clark was found guilty of the 1999 first degree murder of Captain David Knapps during a failed attempt to escape from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where appellant was serving a life sentence for first degree murder. Appellant’s first trial ended in a mistrial after opening statements in the guilt phase because the prosecution informed the jury that appellant was already serving a life sentence. Following his second trial, appellant was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Appellant’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and remanded for further consideration in light of McCoy v. Louisiana, 584 U.S. —, 138 S.Ct. 1500, — L.Ed.2d — (2018). With the benefit of additional briefing and oral argument, and after further consideration, the Louisiana Supreme Court again affirmed appellant’s conviction and sentence. View "Louisiana v. Clark" on Justia Law

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The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case to review an appellate court judgment that modified defendant David Leger’s five vehicular homicide convictions to negligent homicide, vacated his sentences and remanded for resentencing. Specifically, at issue was whether the State presented sufficient evidence that defendant’s intoxication was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, as provided in La. R.S. 14:32.1. After reviewing the applicable law and the evidence, the Supreme Court found the State proved by sufficient evidence that defendant’s intoxication was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, and, thus, vacated the court of appeal judgment, reinstated the trial court judgment, and remanded for the court of appeal to consider the pretermitted assignments of error. View "Louisiana v. Leger" on Justia Law

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Defendant Randy Turner was found guilty of aggravated flight from an officer. He was adjudicated a habitual offender based on the commission of seven predicate felonies and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment at hard labor. The court of appeal reversed the conviction and sentence. A majority of the panel found the district court erred in instructing the jury, and in allowing the State to argue, that the jury could find human life was endangered if the defendant committed one of the acts enumerated in La. R.S. 14:108.1(D) more than once. The dissent disagreed with the majority's interpretation of the statute; the Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari review to resolve the disagreement as to whether the crime of aggravated flight from an officer requires proof that a defendant committed two different acts from among those enumerated in La.R.S. 14:108.1(D), or whether proof of the repeated commission of one of those enumerated acts suffices. The Supreme Court found no real uncertainty in the meaning of “at least two of the following acts” in La.R.S. 14:108.1(D). Instead, the Court found the language of the statute in its context plainly encompassed the commission of one of the acts enumerated in that provision more than once. Therefore, the district court did not err in instructing the jury. Accordingly, it reversed the court of appeal and reinstated defendant’s conviction and sentence. View "Louisiana v. Turner" on Justia Law

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Defendant Khoi Hoang was indicted with conspiracy to commit second degree murder, solicitation to commit second degree murder, second degree murder, and obstruction of justice. Lien Nguyen was abducted from his home during the night on April 23, 2013. His hands were bound behind and his back, he was shot twice, and he was left to die in an area off Old Gentilly Highway. He was still alive when he was found by James Mushatt, who called 911. Mushatt reported seeing a Nissan Titan truck speeding away and said the victim told him that his wife was responsible for the crime. The victim died at the scene shortly after. The jury found defendant guilty as charged of obstruction but was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining charges. Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole eligibility as a third-felony habitual offender. The court of appeal reversed because it found the evidence insufficient to support the conviction. After a review of the record, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded, from all of the evidence presented, a jury could reasonably infer (without speculating) that defendant removed the truck’s license plate or directed someone else to do so because the truck was going to be used in a murder or had just been used in a murder. Thus, the majority of the appellate court erred in finding that “circumstantial evidence connecting Defendant to the removal of the license plate was nonexistent.” To accept defendant’s hypothesis of innocence, that the license plate went coincidentally missing at some point after the murder, would indeed be to accept an “extraordinary coincidence” when viewed in the context of the entirety of the State’s case, as noted by the lower court's dissent. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal’s decision and reinstated defendant’s conviction and sentence for obstruction of justice. View "Louisiana v. Hoang" on Justia Law

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Defendant Melvin Miguel was driving a vehicle that was stopped because it had a cracked windshield. Defendant had been driving with a suspended driver’s license and a fraudulent license plate. In addition, he admitted smoking marijuana. Before asking defendant to exit his vehicle, a detective scanned the interior and noticed an orange prescription bottle, with the name on the label peeled off, sitting in the broken driver’s side door handle. Defendant and his passengers disclaimed ownership of the bottle. Defendant exited the vehicle, was handcuffed and Mirandized, and placed inside a police vehicle. The detective then retrieved the pill bottle, opened it, and discovered five Hydrocodone pills. Defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance, and cited for several traffic violations. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence found in the bottle on several grounds, including that the pill bottle was not immediately apparent as contraband to justify a warrantless search and seizure. The district court denied the motion to suppress after conducting a hearing and reviewing the detective’s body camera video. The court of appeal found the district court erred in denying defendant’s motion to suppress. The Louisiana Supreme Court concluded the appellate court erred, reversed its holding and affirmed the trial court. View "Louisiana v. Miguel" on Justia Law

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The sheriff discovered two bodies burned beyond recognition from a residential fire. The victims were later identified as the occupants, Donald Wayne Demille Williams (“Demille”) and Kimberly Sims. Autopsies revealed both were fatally shot in the head before being burned. A grand jury indicted defendant, Jeremy Wilson, and co-defendant, Erick Townsend, with two counts of first degree murder. The trial court severed the matters. Townsend pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter in exchange for his agreement to testify at Wilson's trial. A jury ultimately convicted Wilson of two counts of second degree murder, and the trial court imposed consecutive life sentences. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the convictions, however, finding the trial court’s evidentiary rulings, when combined with its failure to properly address the attendant privilege invocations, violated defendant’s right to present a defense. View "Louisiana v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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Defendant Lee Turner, Jr. was indicted by a grand jury for the first degree murders of Edward Gurtner, III and Randy Chaney, committed while engaged in the perpetration of armed robbery. Following the close of evidence, a jury unanimously found defendant guilty of two counts of first degree murder and, at the conclusion of the penalty phase of the trial, unanimously recommended sentences of death. In his direct appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, defendant raised 32 assignments of error. Finding merit to defendant’s assignment of error related to his “reverse-Witherspoon” challenge, the Court vacated the sentences. Finding no merit to his remaining challenges, those convictions were affirmed, and this matter was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Louisiana v. Turner" on Justia Law