Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Louisiana Supreme Court
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Defendant Randall Burton was found guilty as charged of the second degree murder of Cody Fletcher. The trial court sentenced him to serve life imprisonment at hard labor without parole eligibility. The court of appeal affirmed. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted defendant’s application to examine whether the trial court erred in excluding evidence of the victim’s dangerous character, pursuant to La. C.E. art. 404(A)(2). This evidence was relevant to defendant’s claim that the homicide was justifiable, under La. R.S. 14:20(A). After examining the record, the arguments of the parties, and the jurisprudence, the Supreme Court found defendant was entitled to a new trial because the trial court erred when it excluded this evidence after defendant introduced appreciable evidence of an overt act or hostile demonstration by the victim. Accordingly, the Court vacated the sentence, set aside the conviction, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Louisiana v. Burton" on Justia Law

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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

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Defendant Walter Perell Fisher, Jr. was taking a bath at his girlfriend’s residence when officers of the St. Tammany Parish Narcotics Task Force accompanied by a parole officer arrived to conduct a “residence check.” The residence check pertained to two probationers who also resided there, Richard Dantin and his fiancee Kristie Smith. Dantin and Smith were on probation for operating a clandestine methamphetamine lab and numerous convictions for possession and distribution of controlled dangerous substances. In response to questioning by the parole officer, Dantin revealed that he had a small quantity of methamphetamine and a pipe on his person. Officers obtained a search warrant for the residence, and found controlled dangerous substances and paraphernalia in the common areas and bedrooms. In the bedroom belonging to Samantha Irwin, defendant’s girlfriend, officers found a single, loose prescription promethazine pill on a cluttered nightstand. In the pocket of a jacket hanging in Irvin’s closet, officers found an opaque container with less than a gram of methamphetamine inside and a bottle of Adderall prescribed to Irvin. She told officers that defendant had no knowledge of the methamphetamine or the promethazine pill in her room. No contraband was found in the bathroom where defendant was taking a bath. A jury found defendant guilty as charged of possession of methamphetamine, and possession of a legend drug without a prescription, based on the methamphetamine found in the jacket pocket and the single promethazine pill found on the nightstand. The trial court adjudicated defendant as a third-felony offender and sentenced him to consecutive terms of 10 years imprisonment at hard labor for possession of a legend drug without a prescription (then the statutory maximum for the offense and his offender class), and four years imprisonment at hard labor for possession of methamphetamine. After review, the Louisiana Supreme Court found the evidence was insufficient to support defendant’s convictions, and vacated them. The Court entered a judgment of acquittal on both charges in his favor. View "Louisiana v. Fisher" on Justia Law

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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

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The question this case presented for the Lousiana Supreme Court’s review was whether applicant Mark Davidson relieved of his duty to register and provide notice as a sex offender, after the district court set aside his convictions pursuant following a period of probation. The Supreme Court found that dismissal pursuant to La.C.Cr.P. art. 893 after a probationary period did not relieve applicant of his duty to register and provide notice as a sex offender. Accordingly, the court of appeal’s ruling reversing the district court’s ruling, which had granted applicant’s motion for summary judgment on his claim for declaratory judgment, was affirmed. View "Davidson v. Louisiana" on Justia Law

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In 2019, two armed residents of New Orleans, Zelda and Danny Townsend, confronted a young Black male, later identified as Emanuel Pipkins, who was inside their vehicle. The Townsends blocked the suspect from leaving. As a gray Acura drove by, a male voice shouted “just shoot ’em,” and Pipkins began shooting. The Townsends returned fire. Zelda Townsend died. Danny Townsend sustained a gunshot wound in an arm. Pipkins also sustained gunshot wounds but managed to flee. Pipkins later arrived at Tulane Medical Center with injuries to his back and foot. His girlfriend, defendant Byrielle Hebert, and his aunt accompanied him. Defendant eventually admitted to police she was with Pipkins when she witnessed the shootout with the Townsends. She would later be indicted by a grand jury for first degree murder, attempted first degree murder and other felony offenses. After she was restored to competency, defendant filed a motion to suppress her pre-arrest statements, arguing that they flowed from an illegal arrest; they were made after she invoked her right to remain silent; she did not waive her Miranda rights; and her statements were made under duress and induced by false promises. The trial court, although noting its reservations about the tactics used by the detectives, denied the motion because it found that defendant’s eventual Miranda waiver was sufficiently attenuated from defendant’s earlier invocations of her right to remain silent. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s judgment, and vacated the trial court’s ruling, both of which denied defendant’s motion to suppress her statements to police. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Louisiana v. Hebert" on Justia Law

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Sixteen-year old Donasty Cohen was charged with second-degree murder for the death of her 27-day-old infant son. After trial, a jury found her guilty of manslaughter. The district court sentenced her to serve 17 years imprisonment at hard labor without parole eligibility. The court of appeal affirmed after deleting the restriction on eligibility for parole. On appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, defendant argued only that the district court erred in denying her challenge for cause of one prospective juror. In the course of reviewing the record, it became apparent that the verdict in this case was non-unanimous. The sealed jury polling slips contained in the record showed defendant was found guilty of manslaughter by vote of 11-1. The State conceded the verdict was not unanimous. The Court held defendant was entitled to a new trial. The appellate court's judgment was reversed, the conviction and sentence vacated, and the matter remanded fur further proceedings. View "Lousiana v. Cohen" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jamal Washington was indicted for racketeering; human trafficking; and conspiracy to commit human trafficking. With regard to racketeering, the indictment alleged that defendant, his codefendants, and other persons, known and unknown, engaged in conduct that furthered a criminal enterprise involved in narcotics distribution and prostitution. Defendant pleaded guilty to racketeering, and the State in exchange dismissed the remaining charges and agreed to forego recidivist sentence enhancement. The district court sentenced defendant in conformity with the plea agreement to serve eight years imprisonment at hard labor. The court of appeal affirmed. Thereafter, defendant sought clarification that the court had not designated the offense as a crime of violence. A minute entry indicated that the district court had designated the offense as a crime of violence. However, no such designation was evident in the sentencing transcript. The district court denied the motion. The court of appeal determined that racketeering was not a crime of violence because it was not enumerated as such in La. R.S. 14:2(B), and because the use (or attempted use) of physical force was not an element of racketeering, as that crime was defined by statute. Therefore, the court of appeal found that the crime was incorrectly designated as a crime of violence in the district court's minute entry. The Louisiana Supreme Court found defendant did not admit to human trafficking when he pleaded guilty to racketeering, and the State dismissed the charge of human trafficking. Defendant also did not admit that he personally performed any violent acts in the factual basis for his guilty plea. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the court of appeal, which reversed the district court’s ruling denying defendant’s motion to correct the sentencing minute entry to reflect that the offense was not designated as a crime of violence, and which remanded to the district court for correction of the minute entry. View "Washington v. Louisiana" on Justia Law

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Ronald Sewell, a 20-year-old Jamaican national, pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree robbery and pleaded guilty as charged to possession of a stolen firearm. The district court sentenced him to serve three years imprisonment at hard labor without parole eligibility for each first degree robbery, and one year imprisonment at hard labor for possession of a stolen firearm, with the sentences to run concurrently. After he served his sentences, the federal Government commenced removal proceedings based on these felony guilty pleas. Sewell filed an application for post-conviction relief in which he contended the guilty pleas had to be set aside because counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to advise him that they would result in his removal from the United States. Sewell’s former counsel testified at the post-conviction evidentiary hearing stating she was unaware that Sewell was not a United States citizen, and that she would have advised him of the possibility of removal if she had known his status as a noncitizen. Former counsel also testified that Sewell spoke English fluently and without an accent, and that he never informed her that he was born outside of the United States. The judge who presided over the post-conviction evidentiary hearing also accepted the guilty pleas. The judge indicated that she recalled the case and agreed that nothing about Sewell would have prompted anyone to question whether he was a United States citizen. Nonetheless, the district court granted Sewell’s application for post-conviction relief and ordered that his guilty pleas be withdrawn. The court noted that no one had advised defendant of the strong likelihood he would be removed from the United States based on his guilty pleas, the plea form did not contain any place to indicate citizenship, and therefore the court found it incumbent upon it to grant the relief requested. The State appealed. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed, finding that under the circumstances here, Sewell failed to carry his burden post-conviction that his attorney’s failure to inquire into his citizenship fell below an objective standard of reasonableness under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Therefore, the district court erred in granting Sewell’s application for post-conviction relief and in ordering that Sewell’s guilty pleas be withdrawn. Accordingly, the State’s application was granted and the rulings of the courts below reversed. Sewell’s guilty pleas were reinstated. View "Louisiana v. Sewell" on Justia Law

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Defendant Tyrone Johnson pled guilty as charged to distribution of methamphetamine, for which he received a 23 year sentence of imprisonment at hard labor in exchange for the State promising not to file a habitual offender bill of information and seek a life sentence. The court of appeal vacated the plea and sentence because it found defendant was denied his right to counsel of choice when the district court refused on Friday to continue the Monday trial date to allow defendant additional time in which to hire a new attorney. Under the circumstances of this case, the Louisiana Supreme Court found the court of appeal erred. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reinstated the guilty plea and sentence. View "Louisiana v. Johnson" on Justia Law