Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals
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In 1991 Loza shot and killed four members of his pregnant girlfriend’s family. An Ohio jury convicted him of four counts of aggravated murder and he was sentenced to death. Ohio state courts affirmed Loza’s convictions and sentences on direct appeal and denied him post-conviction relief. Loza filed a habeas corpus petition in federal district court, which was denied. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting claims concerning: refusal to suppress statements Loza made to a detective shortly after the detective encountered Loza on the day of his arrest; the voluntariness and admissibility of his confession; exclusion of the testimony of a clinical psychologist, at the guilt phase of trial; the court’s charge to the jury concerning inability to reach a decision; and failure to inform Loza, after his arrest, that he had a right to contact the Mexican consulate. View "Loza v. Mitchell" on Justia Law

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Prater was convicted as a felon in possession of ammunition, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). Prater’s presentence report determined that U.S.S.G. 2K2.1 provided the base offense level; because Prater had at least two prior felony convictions for “crimes of violence,” his base offense level was 24 The report also determined that Prater qualified as an armed career criminal under 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1), because he had at least three separated convictions for a “violent felony,” which subjected Prater to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years of imprisonment. It also raised Prater’s offense level to 33, under 4B1.4(b)(3)(B). The presentence report assigned Prater 20 criminal-history points, which corresponded to a criminal-history category of VI. An offense level of 33 and a criminal-history category of VI resulted in a guideline range of 235–293 months of imprisonment. The report identified four New York predicate convictions qualifying Prater as an armed career offender: a 1980 conviction for attempted third-degree burglary; a 1988 conviction for third-degree robbery; a separate 1988 conviction for third-degree burglary; and a 2000 conviction for attempted third-degree burglary. The Sixth Circuit vacated the sentence because the court did not apply the Supreme Court’s “modified categorical approach” to determine whether the version of the crimes for which Prater was convicted qualified as violent felonies. View "United States v. Prater" on Justia Law

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After selling heroin to an undercover FBI agent, Johnson was charged with a drug offense by the State of Michigan. He declined the state’s plea offer. The state dismissed the charges, and a federal grand jury later indicted him. Johnson was convicted of: conspiracy to distribute heroin, 21 U.S.C. 846; possession of heroin with the intent to distribute and distribution, section 841(a)(1); use of a communication facility to facilitate the drug conspiracy, section 843(b); and use of a residence for the purpose of distributing heroin, section 856(a)(1). Johnson claimed that he was deprived of effective assistance of counsel in the state plea negotiations that preceded his federal prosecution, and that, as a result, the federal indictment against him should have been dismissed. The Sixth Circuit rejected the claim and affirmed, noting that there was no indication that federal prosecutors were involved in his state-court case, nor any indication that Johnson’s representation in his state plea negotiations was ineffective. View "United States v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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In 1983 Esparza shot and killed Melanie Gerschults during the armed robbery of a Toledo restaurant, during which $110 was taken from the cash register. Another employee escaped and sought help. At trial, a fellow inmate and a sibling testified that Esparza had confessed. During the penalty phase, Esparza’s lawyers focused on his troubled youth. He was sentenced to death. After Ohio state courts refused to alter his sentence, Esparza unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief. The Supreme Court reversed in 2003. On remand, the district court reconsidered and rejected Esparza’s claims and granted him a certificate of appealability on ineffective-assistance and continuance claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed; Ohio courts reasonably rejected his claims. Essentially, Esparza argued that his lawyers developed too much bad evidence at the penalty phase of his trial and not enough good. Esparza failed to show prejudice in his denial-of-continuance claim. The court stated that its “decision is not necessarily the end of the road for Esparza. Among other things, he has the right to file a clemency application with the governor to reduce his sentence from death to life in prison. In light of the many uninvited difficulties in his childhood, this application may be worth a serious look.” View "Esparza v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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Foster was sentenced to 622 months’ imprisonment for two counts of drug possession, two counts of firearm possession, one count of drug distribution, and one count of conspiracy. Both parties subsequently agreed that Foster’s conviction and sentence for one of the drug possession counts and one of the firearm possession counts violated the Double Jeopardy Clause because those two counts duplicate other counts for which Foster was convicted and sentenced. The Sixth Circuit declined to vacate the sentences for the remaining four counts. The 120-month sentence for the duplicative drug possession count was set to run concurrently with three sentences of equal or greater length so that its vacatur could not logically be a basis for increasing the overall sentence for the remaining counts. The district court made clear at sentencing that the duplicative firearm possession count did not affect the length of other parts of the sentence. There is, therefore, no basis for the district court to increase the sentence on the four remaining counts. View "United States v. Foster" on Justia Law

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Batey’s minor nephew Matthew was admitted to a mental health facility. Matthew’s older brother Jason told his parents that Batey had been sexually abusing Matthew and Jason for years. Matthew confirmed the abuse. At Batey’s trial on two counts of criminal sexual conduct, Matthew and Jason testified that Batey had abused them. Their mother testified that Matthew’s behavior had worsened leading up to his breakdown and confirmed that, Jason revealed Batey’s abuse. Batey’s defense was that the parents manufactured the accusations because he is gay and because he had encouraged the boys to explore their homosexual feelings; he argued that it was Jason who sexually abused Matthew. Jason had molested Matthew and told the police as much when he accused Batey. Fearing a confusing “fishing expedition” and unduly prejudicial information about Matthew’s sexual history, the trial court granted the state’s motion in limine prohibiting any exploration of Matthew and Jason’s sexual history with each other in accordance with Michigan’s rape-shield law. Batey was permitted to challenge the boys’ credibility on their mental health issues, inconsistencies in their testimony, Jason’s drug and alcohol abuse, and his tendency to lie. The jury convicted Batey and the judge sentenced him to 15 to 45 years. Batey’s direct appeals were unsuccessful. He is on parole. The district court denied his federal habeas petition based on an alleged Confrontation Clause violation. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The probative value of evidence about Jason’s molestation of Matthew was marginal and any error was harmless. View "Batey v. Haas" on Justia Law

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In 1995, Mullet bought Jefferson County, Ohio land that became the Bergholz Amish community. As bishop, Samuel controlled life in the Bergholz compound and could order the “shunning” (excommunication) of community members. In 2006, Samuel excommunicated members who questioned his leadership. Given the number of excommunications, 300 Amish bishops convened and voted unanimously to reverse the shunnings. The excommunications caused family disputes, including a custody battle that resulted in a SWAT team taking children under an emergency temporary custody order. Believing that the loss of the children resulted from their lack of faith, several Bergholz residents cut their hair and trimmed their beards to atone, but did not confine this ritual to their community, but used it to punish or harm others who were not Bergholz members. In 2011, Bergholz members attacked nine individuals, slicing off the men’s beards and cutting the women’s hair. Religious and personal ties connected the victims to the Bergholz community. Members of the Bergholz community were indicted for violating, and conspiring to violate, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, on a theory that that they assaulted the victims “because of” their religious beliefs, 18 U.S.C. 249(a)(2)(A); for concealing evidence; and for making false statements to the FBI. No defendant disputed that the assaults happened; few disputed that they participated. A jury found that four attacks amounted to hate crimes and convicted 16 defendants. The court rejected the defendants’ proposed jury instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “but for” cause of the assaults) and adopted the government’s proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “significant factor”). The Sixth Circuit reversed, based on a Supreme Court holding (Burrage (2014)) that the court should have given a but-for instruction. View "United States v. Mullet" on Justia Law

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Mateen pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2252(a)(4)(B) after police discovered more than 600 images of child pornography on his computer. In 2006, Mateen had pleaded guilty to Gross Sexual Imposition in violation of Ohio Revised Code 2907.05. The state-court plea colloquy indicated that his victim was an eight-year-old girl. The district court imposed a 10-year statutory maximum term of imprisonment, concluding that a statutory enhancement (18 U.S.C. 2252(b)(2)) for recidivist sexual offenders did not apply to because Mateen’s prior conviction for Gross Sexual Imposition did not necessarily involve a minor or ward. The Sixth Circuit initially affirmed, but subsequently vacated and remanded, concluding that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies only its direct antecedent, “abusive sexual conduct,” and not all three listed categories of conduct: “aggravated sexual abuse,” “sexual abuse,” and “abusive sexual conduct.” Only state crimes relating to abusive sexual conduct need involve a minor or ward in order to trigger enhancement under section 2252(b)(2). View "United States v. Mateen" on Justia Law

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Van Tran was born in 1966 in Vietnam, the son of an American serviceman who died two years later. He lived in poverty, and as a child, suffered severe social deprivation. He attended one year of school in the U.S., and dropped out in 1984. In 1987, Van Tran and three others robbed a Memphis restaurant, from which he had been fired. Three people were killed and a 75-year-old woman was beaten unconscious. Van Tran twice shot a 74-year-old woman and shot another victim in the face. He confessed participation in the robbery, was convicted of three counts of felony murder, and was sentenced to death for each on the basis of aggravating circumstances, that the murder was “especially cruel in that it involved depravity of mind.” The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the convictions, but reversed his death sentence for two murders, finding that there was sufficient evidence that killing the older woman evinced “depravity of mind.” Van Tran sought state post-conviction relief, claiming ineffective assistance and that he should not be executed because he is mentally retarded and incompetent. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed denial of relief, noting that Van Tran’s I.Q. was above 70. Van Tran moved to reopen his petition in 2000, alleging that new evidence established that he was mentally retarded. The Tennessee Supreme Court announced that execution of mentally retarded persons was prohibited by the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions. On remand, the court denied relief, finding that Van Tran had not demonstrated the existence of deficits in adaptive behavior nor the manifestation of deficits before the age of 18. The appellate court agreed. The district court denied federal habeas relief. The Sixth Circuit remanded to allow the state court to apply the proper standard in assessing whether Van Tran is intellectually disabled such that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment under Atkins v. Virginia. The court affirmed on the issues of whether, as applied, the “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating circumstance of the jury instruction violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments; and whether Van Tran’s penalty phase counsel was ineffective. View "Van Tran v. Colson" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Robinson pleaded guilty to mail fraud and aiding and abetting. The district court sentenced Robinson to 97.5 months of imprisonment and ordered him to pay criminal restitution of $286,875. A year later, Robinson pleaded guilty to a second set of criminal violations, resulting in convictions of wire fraud and aiding and abetting. The district court imposed a 24-month term of imprisonment and again ordered Robinson to pay restitution, this time $100,000. Robinson paid only $7,779.44 of the first judgment and $200 of the second before filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 13. The government, under the criminal restitution judgments, is a lien creditor. Filing for bankruptcy triggered the automatic stay, which suspends all activities related to the collection and enforcement of prepetition debts, 11 U.S.C. 362(a). The bankruptcy court denied the government’s motion to bypass the stay under 18 U.S.C. 3613(a), which provides that the government may enforce a judgment imposing restitution “notwithstanding any other Federal law.” The district court reversed, reasoning that it did not matter whether the debtor or the bankruptcy estate holds nominal title to the property because section 3613(a) allows the government to enforce a restitution order against all property of the person ordered to pay. The Sixth Circuit affirmed; section 3613 supersedes the automatic stay and allows the government to enforce restitution orders against property included in the bankruptcy estate. View "Robinson. v. United States" on Justia Law