Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals
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In 2010, while in state custody for another offense, Brown mailed a threatening letter to a federal magistrate judge, who had presided over dismissal of Brown’s habeas petition. Following an investigation, Brown pled guilty to mailing a threatening communication in violation of 18 U.S.C. 876(c). A presentence investigation report recommended that Brown be sentenced pursuant to the USSG career offender enhancement, which applies to a defendant convicted under section 876(c) if he has “at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense,” USSG 4B1.1(a). The recommendation was based on: a 1986 Pennsylvania conviction for aggravated assault; a 2004 Pennsylvania conviction for making terroristic threats; and 2005 Pennsylvania convictions for making terroristic threats and for retaliating against a judicial officer, in violation of 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4953.1. The 2005 convictions arose from the same conduct. In sentencing Brown as a career offender, the district court followed the Supreme Court’s approach in United States v. Mahone. The Third Circuit vacated. Mahone is no longer controlling in light of Descamps v. United States (2013), in which the Supreme Court held that a sentencing court may not look to the facts underlying a prior conviction but instead must look to its elements. View "United States v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Pittsburgh Police Detectives Emery, Adametz, Kennedy, and Gault were patrolling in an unmarked cruiser and observed a Chevy Impala driven by Brown parking across from a nuisance bar where drug dealing and shootings regularly occur. The detectives believed the Impala was parked too close to the intersection, stopped their cruiser, and watched as Brown and three others exit the Impala. Brown appeared to recognize the unmarked cruiser, sat back down in the Impala, and made a motion consistent with removing an object from his waistband and placing it beneath the seat. Brown then stepped out and walked toward the bar. The detectives believed Brown had removed a gun from his person and attempted to conceal it under the seat. They identified themselves as police officers. Gault informed Brown that the Impala was parked illegally. Emery walked around the car, shined a flashlight through the windshield, and observed “the grip and rear slide portion of a semi-automatic firearm sticking out from underneath the driver’s seat.” The detectives asked Brown whether he had a permit to carry the firearm. Brown answered that he did not. They placed him under arrest and retrieved the gun. Charged as a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), Brown unsuccessfully moved to suppress evidence of the gun. The Third Circuit vacated the conviction. While rejecting Brown’s argument that evidence of the firearm should have been suppressed, the court found error in admitting evidence of Brown’s past firearm purchases and by overruling objections to the prosecutor’s closing arguments. The error was not harmless. View "United States v. Brown" on Justia Law

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In 2009 - 2010, Erwin managed an oxycodone distribution ring by obtaining medically unnecessary prescriptions for oxycodone from licensed physicians in exchange for cash. Erwin’s customers, posing as patients, filled the prescriptions at various pharmacies. The conspiracy yielded hundreds of thousands of oxycodone tablets, which were illegally sold on the black market. Erwin executed a written agreement to plead guilty to a single-count information charging him with conspiracy; the government agreed not to bring further charges. The agreement stipulated that, under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines: based on the quantity of oxycodone for which Erwin was responsible (6,912 grams), his base offense level was 38; Erwin was subject to a four-level enhancement for his leadership role and qualified for a three-level downward adjustment for acceptance of responsibility; the total Guidelines offense level was 39. The agreement included a waiver of right to appeal the sentence if it was within or below the advisory Sentencing Guidelines range. Erwin’s 188-month sentence was below that range. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that Erwin’s appeal was within the scope of the waiver, to which he knowingly and voluntarily agreed, and that he failed to raise any meritorious grounds for circumventing the waiver. The appropriate remedy for his breach was specific performance of the agreement’s terms: that is, the government is excused from its obligation to move for a downward departure. View "United States v. Erwin" on Justia Law

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Donahue was convicted of fraud and related offenses and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The court directed Donahue to surrender by a given time place to serve this sentence, but he did not do so. The court issued a warrant for his arrest; U.S. marshals apprehended Donahue in New Mexico, while he was in his son’s Ford Mustang. The marshals took possession of the Mustang and, over the next five days, two federal agencies searched the vehicle several times and photographed and x-rayed it, without seeking or obtaining a warrant. An FBI agent found a firearm magazine clip under the driver’s seat and a semi- automatic pistol in a bag seized from the Mustang’s trunk. Donahue moved to suppress evidence found in the Mustang and in a hotel room in which he had registered under a false name. The district court granted the motion, finding that the government lacked probable cause. The government appealed with respect to evidence found in the Mustang. The Third Circuit reversed. Although it is clear that the government had the opportunity to seek a warrant before searching the Mustang, the automobile exception to the warrant requirement obviated its need to do so as there was probable cause; there were virtually no temporal, physical, or numerical limitations on the search’s scope. View "United States v. Donahue" on Justia Law

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Bagdy pled guilty to wire fraud, having embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from a family-owned business for which he was a consultant. The court sentenced him to 36 months’ imprisonment and ordered restitution of $566,115.57. As a condition of supervised release, Bagdy was to “make periodic payments of at least ten percent of his gross monthly income… in such amounts and at such times as directed by his probation officer.” Bagdy was required to “provide his probation officer with access to any requested financial information.” He began supervised release in July 2011. In March 2012, Bagdy reported that he had received $409,799.13 in inheritance from his aunt. Bagdy consulted with his probation officer and paid $41,000 toward restitution, claiming that this reflected 10 percent of his monthly income as required by the judgment. The government moved to modify the order of restitution (18 U.S.C. 3664(k)). Although no agreement was reached at a meeting, Bagdy contributed $60,000 more toward restitution and remained in communication with the government regarding possible settlement. Bagdy obtained five extensions of time to respond to the motion. At a December 2012 hearing, the government informed the court that Bagdy had inherited an additional $25,000 that it previously was unaware of and that Bagdy had spent all but about $52,000. The court modified Bagdy’s conditions of supervised release conditions to order payment of the remaining $52,000. Bagdy’s counsel did not object. The court then revoked his supervised release. The Third Circuit vacated and remanded for determination of whether Bagdy violated any other conditions. While his conduct was “reprehensible,” it did not violate a specific condition of supervised release. View "United States v. Bagdy" on Justia Law

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Syblis, a citizen of Jamaica, entered the U.S. in 2000 as a non-immigrant visitor. He remained beyond three months without seeking additional authorization. In 2004 he was charged with possession of marijuana. The charges were later amended and he was convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia. In 2008, in an unrelated incident, Syblis was convicted of possession of marijuana. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against Syblis, under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(1)(B) for overstaying his visa authorization, and under 8 U.S.C. 1227(a)(2)(B)(i) for his paraphernalia and marijuana convictions. He contested his removability on the grounds that he was convicted of an offense relating to a controlled substance and renewed a previous application for an adjustment of status and requested a waiver of criminal inadmissibility grounds. The IJ concluded that both of Syblis's convictions related to "controlled substances" and found him ineligible for a waiver of criminal inadmissibility under 8 U.S.C. 1182(h). The BIA upheld the decision. The Third Circuit affirmed, holding that Syblis failed to meet his statutorily prescribed burden of demonstrating eligibility for relief from removal. View "Syblis v. Att'y Gen of the U.S/" on Justia Law

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In December 2006 a grand jury charged Claxton and others with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine between 1999 and 2005. An arrest warrant issued that day. The first trial began in September, 2007 without Claxton, because he had not been arrested. Two co-defendants were found guilty and a mistrial was declared as to others. While appeal was pending, Claxton was arrested in April 2008 and was held until the transfer to the Virgin Islands was completed in July 2008. Claxton was arraigned on July 21and entered a plea of not guilty. The district court ordered continued detention. Claxton unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the charge on October 23, 2009 under the Sixth Amendment and the Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. 3161. Claxton joined an unsuccessful motion to continue the trial based upon pre-trial publicity on May 14, 2010. The defendants also objected to selecting a jury from the same panel used to select a jury in the previous trial. Claxton’s trial began on May 24, 2010. A jury found Claxton guilty, but the court entered judgment of acquittal. On remand, Claxton was sentenced. The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting claims based on the delay in bringing him to trial, and alleged denial of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, improper admission of drug evidence, and Brady violations. View "United States v. Claxton" on Justia Law

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Freeman and Mark and others were convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Both presented proposed jury instructions that the government must prove the existence of "five or more kilograms of cocaine" as an essential element. The court instead instructed the jury, along with all of the other elements of conspiracy, that they need only find that the conspiracy involved a "measurable amount of the controlled substance alleged in the indictment." The court submitted to the jury a post-verdict question: "[a]s to … conspiracy with intent to distribute a controlled substance, do you find that five kilograms or more was involved[?]" After deliberation, the jury failed to arrive at a unanimous decision. The court found that there was sufficient evidence that Freeman was "a manager and a supervisor" in the conspiracy, that Freeman "conspire[d] with intent to distribute . . . at least 50 kilograms of cocaine," and sentenced Freeman to 188 months' imprisonment. The court found that Mark was responsible for 15 to 50 kilograms of cocaine and that there was sufficient evidence in the record to warrant a three-level adjustment for his role in the conspiracy and sentenced Mark to a term of 210 months' imprisonment. The Third Circuit affirmed as to Freeman, vacated and remanded for resentencing as to Mark. View "United States v. Freeman" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) maintains bank accounts, which inmates use to purchase items such as soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and over-the-counter medications. Inmates are also responsible for the costs some medical and legal services. Inmates earn wages, capped at 51 cents an hour, for work conducted for the prison, or get gifts from friends and family. In 1998, the legislature authorized the DOC to deduct from inmate accounts to collect “restitution or any other court-ordered obligation or costs.” The DOC promulgated a policy that each DOC facility makes “payments of 20% of the inmate’s account balance and monthly income for restitution, reparation, fees, costs, fines, and/or penalties associated with the criminal proceedings … provided that the inmate has a balance that exceeds $10.00.” DOC authority to make deductions is automatically triggered when it receives a sentencing order that includes a monetary portion. There is no requirement that the order provide for automatic deduction. DOC does not provide inmates with any hearing or other opportunity to be heard before deductions commence. Inmates filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging violations of procedural due process rights. After post-remand discovery, the district court granted defendants summary judgment, finding some claims time-barred, that one inmate had received all process he was due under the Constitution, and that corrections officials were entitled to qualified immunity from claims for monetary damages. The Third Circuit reversed as to the due process claims noting disputes of fact regarding notice and because the inmate never had any opportunity to be heard prior to deprivation, but otherwise affirmed. View "Montanez v. Sec'y PA Dep't of Corrs." on Justia Law

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After a jury trial, Appellant was convicted of first degree murder, attempted criminal homicide, and related offenses. The trial court imposed upon Appellant a death sentence for the murder conviction. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Appellant’s conviction and sentence. Appellant later filed a petition for writ of habeas corps in the United States District Court asserting, among other claims, that (1) the state trial court violated his due process rights when it declined to instruct the jury, pursuant to Simmons v. South Carolina, that Appellant was ineligible for parole; and (2) there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that the “grave risk” aggravating circumstance applied, and the trial court improperly instructed the jury with regard to this aggravating circumstance. The Third Circuit affirmed, holding (1) the trial court did not err in declining to give a Simmons instruction; and (2) there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding of the “grave risk” aggravating circumstance, and the trial court did not err when it provided instructions to the jury on the “grave risk” aggravating circumstance. View "Robinson v. Beard" on Justia Law